Your Mouth Has a Microbiome, Too—Here Are 5 Ways to Take Care of It for Better Overall Health

The bacteria in your mouth impacts the health of your whole body. Here's how to stay healthy from teeth to toes.

Your mouth is home to a complex community of microorganisms, known as the oral microbiome. These microorganisms play a crucial role in maintaining optimal oral health, but their influence extends far beyond just the teeth and gums. The oral microbiome can have a significant impact on overall well-being, even contributing to seemingly unrelated gut diseases and certain cancers. Health experts share surprisingly easy steps you can take right now to improve your dental hygiene and keep your oral microbiome in tip top shape.


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What is an oral microbiome?

Cosmetic dentist, Michael Kosdon, DDS, of Smiles of NYC, explains that the oral microbiome is the collection of all bacteria, fungus, and viruses that live in our mouths. “This includes over 20 billion helpful bacteria that live in communities in various areas of the mouth,” he says. “This helpful bacteria can be found in dental plaque, in saliva, and on the tongue, throat, tonsils, and cheeks. Most of this bacteria (99 percent) lives in total harmony with us and protects us from other harmful pathogens.”

How does it affect overall health?

A study from Nature shows that microbial ecologists and biologists are learning more and more about the oral microbiome each year, and a large and growing body of research has found several correlations between the oral microbiome and overall health. Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Marine Biological Laboratory found that each part of the mouth houses different “microbial communities.” Some are really good. Streptococcus salivarius, for example, can mitigate inflammation.

Research has discovered that the state of the mouth microbiota and presence of periodontal disease play a role in non-oral diseases and conditions, including type 2 diabetes and stroke. According to a 2018 study published in AIMS Microbiology: "Oral microbiome plays a key role in shaping up the host's health profile...[and]...There is an intricate relationship between oral microbiome and occurrence of other diseases like heart and liver related disorders, hence identification and characterization of causative organisms may act as an important gateway for maintenance of overall health."

Older research has also established that the balance of your mouth microbiome can influence gut health directly, since the mouth is an integral part of the digestive process.

However, many oral care products—like prescription-only Chlorhexidine mouthwash, according to 2020 research—contain ingredients that kill useful bacteria and shift the entire oral ecosystem. The imbalance can create other health problems. Dr. Kosdon adds that imbalanced oral ecosystems may be correlated to diseases like colorectal cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and even Alzheimer's disease.

What are some signs of an unhealthy oral microbiome?

“Signs and symptoms of an unhealthy oral microbiome include experiencing bad breath, mouth ulcers that don’t heal in more than two weeks, oral thrush or fungal growth in the mouth, swollen and bleeding gums, and tonsilitis," says Kathleen Navarro, RDH, DMD, licensed dental hygienist. "Another symptom is the increased development of plaque and tartar on teeth."

Even a metallic taste or dry mouth can also be signs of an imbalance, Dr. Kosdon adds. Anyone who has had a lot of dental work or tooth decay may need an oral health provider to take a deeper look at their oral microbiome health. Regular dental checkups and cleanings are not just about cosmetic preference. While it makes perfect sense that someone who has trouble chewing might experience dietary and digestion problems, Dr. Kosdon reiterates that there's a lot of research linking the bacteria in our mouths with chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

3 Ways to Keep Your Oral Microbiome Healthy

Floss and brush your teeth every day, twice a day.

First things first, maintaining good oral hygiene is one of the most important habits for maintaining a healthy oral microbiome, says Dr. Kosdon. “Make sure you brush and floss properly twice daily."

Adequate brushing doesn’t mean brushing hard, adds Navarro. “It means brushing all the surfaces of teeth efficiently and effectively, even with a soft-bristled toothbrush.” Flossing between teeth at least once a day is also crucial to keeping food from rotting underneath your gums. Every six months, show up for a routine dental checkup to catch diseases, plaque, and tartar build up.

Eat a balanced diet, limiting processed foods and added sugars.

Second, Dr. Kosdon recommends eating a balanced diet full of whole foods. “Avoid processed foods and ones with added sugar,” he says. And drink plenty of water (dry mouth and bad breath are two sneaky signs of dehydration!). Because our mouths and stomachs are connected in a continuous line, he explains that many of the bacteria we need in our stomach actually come from our mouths.

“Some of these oral microbes help reduce inflammation, regulate the acidity in our mouths and kill other harmful bacteria. They also play an important role in regulating our blood pressure by converting nitrate into nitric oxide. This is something our bodies can not do on their own and are dependent on these important bacteria,” he says. But if your body is not properly fueled, then there’s no way it can function well. Added and artificial sugars can help harmful organisms grow throughout our bodies.

Double-check the ingredients labels on your oral care products.

Lastly, be vigilant about the ingredients in your oral care products. There are hundreds of types of bacteria in our mouths and not all of them should be killed. Dr. Kosdon says to avoid using mouthwashes that contain alcohol, as this ingredient could diminish a lot of the healthy bacteria that we need along with the bad ones it kills.

There are many ingredients in toothpaste and oral hygiene products that may be doing more harm than good. Avoid BPA, be careful with oral Chlorhexidine, and keep a watchful eye out for harsh detergents like sodium lauryl sulfate and high concentrations of fluoride that can alter the microbiome.

Avoid smoking and vaping.

Navarro reminds that smoking is also a big no-no, not just because it harms your lungs and affects your breathing, but also because it depletes oxygen and increases bacterial adherence. Smoking worsens gum disease. And early research indicates that when it comes to oral health, vaping is just as harmful as traditional cigarettes.

Don't skip your regular dental checkups!

While it might seem like you’re keeping your pearly whites bright and fresh, remember that only a trained eye can spot certain common problems underneath the surface. Don’t wait for pain or bleeding to make an appointment to see a dentist. Instead, schedule two appointments each year to maintain proper oral care. If dentists spot a problem, they can prescribe probiotics and dietary changes to help improve your dental health for the long haul.

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