When Good Microbes Go Rogue: Are Smart Bacteria Harming your Oral Health?
Behind every healthy smile is a beneficial ecosystem of microbes working together to protect your mouth and overall health known as the oral microbiome. Just like the colony of microbes living in the digestive tract, the oral microbiome serves to protect the teeth and tissues in the mouth.
It sounds like science fiction, but when we don’t take care of our oral health, superorganisms can form causing tooth decay and cavities. Discover more about how you can protect the balance of your oral microbiome with healthy habits.
What is the Oral Microbiome?
There are over 700 species of microorganisms known as the oral microbiome that call your mouth home.1 A living community of microorganisms live at both ends of the digestive tract beginning in the mouth and ending further down the digestive tract in the colon.
Digestion Starts Here
Did you know that digestion begins in the mouth? The oral microbiome is responsible for starting the digestive process, which is then carried on throughout the digestive tract.
Bacteria in the mouth can start the digestion of carbohydrates.2 Bacteria ferment carbohydrates creating a slightly acidic environment in the mouth.
If we continue to eat foods high in carbohydrates such as soda and sweets, this can cause more acidic-thriving bacteria to colonize the mouth. Over time, acid can erode the enamel of our teeth, leaving them susceptible to cavities.
Protects Teeth and Gums
The oral microbiome lives on soft tissues of the gums and hard surfaces of the teeth–basically, everywhere your dentist tells you to brush.3 Maintaining a healthy oral microbiome is essential to protect the health of your teeth and gums.
If we don’t regularly brush or clean our teeth, the microorganisms involved in periodontal disease can overgrow, leading to cavities and gum disease.2
Supports Overall Health
The health of your mouth is connected to the health of your body. Problems that arise in the mouth, such as periodontal disease have been linked with chronic illness, particularly heart health.3
Your mouth is a gateway to not only your digestive tract, but is also connected to your respiratory tract. Airborne viruses and harmful bacteria can enter through the mouth. Regular brushing and a healthy microbiome can help launch an initial defense against these harmful organisms.23
When Good Oral Microbiome Goes Bad: Superorganisms
In our mouths, fungi and bacteria can congregate into biofilms that coat the teeth.4 These biofilms are related to infections and dental caries.
Biofilms have a surprising feature, they bond together creating superorganisms that can move across your teeth and even “jump” onto another tooth’s surface.4 What this means is that if you have a superorganism on the surface of one tooth causing tooth decay, that superorganism can “jump” onto another tooth causing similar problems.
Furthermore, bacterial clusters can “hitchhike” on these moving superorganisms increasing the amount of problematic bacteria in your mouth.4 Since bacterial superorganisms live on your teeth and in your saliva, be careful about who you share a drink or a kiss with as they can be spread through saliva.
How to Protect Your Oral Health
Protecting your oral health can be accomplished with little daily habits that translate into big results. Below are evidenced-based oral hygiene recommendations from the American Dental Association (ADA) and Centers for Disease Control.56
Brush Twice Daily
Brushing your teeth twice daily can significantly reduce the risk of cavities and dental disease.6 The ADA recommends that adults brush for at least 2 minutes, or roughly 30 seconds in each quadrant of the mouth.
Flossing, or more specifically interdental cleaning, should be done at least twice daily. There are a number of means in which to clean between your teeth that aren’t flossing. Dental picks, water picks, and interdental brushes are all designed to remove food particles and plaque from between the teeth.
Visit Your Dentist Every 6 Months
Dental hygienists and dentists are trained professionals who will thoroughly clean your teeth and inspect for any plaque or signs or periodontal disease.
Since oral health is closely linked with overall health, your dentist may catch early warning signs of chronic illnesses. Inflammation of the gums is associated with a higher risk for heart disease.7
The foods we eat directly influence our oral health. Whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, beans, nuts, seeds and peas provide quality nutrition that keep our teeth and gums healthy.
Avoiding high carbohydrate foods, especially candy, desserts and juices along with regular brushing will help keep the overgrowth of harmful biofilms to a minimum. You can also drink plenty of water to provide a welcoming, hydrated environment for your microbiome.
Report Any Changes in Oral Health
An important part of health promotion is being your own best advocate to your dentist. Be sure to report any changes in your mouth, such as tooth pain, bleeding, or swollen gums. Your dental provider can help assess and correct any issues.
A clean and healthy smile is a reflection of a balanced oral microbiome. You can take simple steps to protect your oral microbiome. We need a helpful colony of microorganisms to protect against potential illnesses and keep our smile shining brightly.
1. Deo P.N., et al. (2019). Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology, PubMed Central.
2. Wade, W.G. (2013). Pharmacological Research, PubMed.gov.
3. Dewhirst F., et al. (2010). Journal of Bacteriology, PubMed.gov.
4. Ren Z., et al. (2022). PNAS.org.
5. [Oral health tips, adult oral health]. (n.d.). Centers for Disease Control, cdc.gov.
6. [Tips for oral health at home]. (2020). American Dental Association, ada.org.
7. Chapple I.L., et al. (2014). Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, PubMed Central.