In medicine, we often think of the human body as a machine, a series of different systems. However, modern science is showing that we may want to rethink this image. Our body has a lot of different functions – and it’s more than a machine: its an environment, or an ecosystem.
You see, the human body is home to a variety of different bacteria and organisms – they actually outnumber our actual cells 10-1. Together, they are the human microbiome.1 Like any ecosystem, when newcomers enter the system, they can change everything, and not always for the better. Bringing balance to these bacteria is one reason probiotics have become so popular.
Even though probiotic products are associated with the gut, this all began with the mouth. In 1683, Antony van Leeuwenhoeke examined some of the plaque on his teeth with his own hand-crafted microscopes. He became the first person to see his own bacteria.2
The oral microbiome is a different system than the gut, but it may be every bit as important – or even more so.
What Is The Mouth Microbiome?
In 2000, the U.S. Attorney General at the time described the mouth as the “mirror” of health and disease in the body. 3 When applied to the human microbiome, this makes a lot of sense.
Revisiting the theme of the body as an ecosystem, if your gut was a river, then the mouth would be its source. Everything that comes into the gut goes through the mouth. So, every single way that the gut microbiome affects the body, in turn, is affected by the oral microbiome. This not only includes food that enters the mouth on its way to the intestinal tract. Air that passes through the nose and mouth on its way to the lungs also follows this path. This means that many of the things that affect your immune system must first go through your mouth.
Part of understanding the human microbiome is realizing that it is made up of millions of working parts – and the same is true for the oral microbiome. Each part has its own unique set of aerobic and anaerobic organisms, almost 700 in total. These include the tongue, the hard palate, the teeth, and around the tooth surfaces, both above and below the gums.4
Even within these parts, there are smaller ways that these oral microbiota interact. They don’t sit side-by side. These organisms are highly-regulated, organized communities called biofilms.5
How the Oral Microbiome Differs
While it shares some similarities to the gut microbiome, the oral microbiome also stands out in others. For example, the moist environment of the mouth is a natural fit for microorganism growth. Also, the teeth are the only natural non-shedding surface in the body. The scientific community is still figuring out the exact organization of these biofilms. While it may be years until this is revealed, more and more progress is being made.
How is the relationship between between microbiomes and the environment created? The answer dates back to the beginning. When a child is born, the mother transmits microbes to the baby, which are the foundations of the microbiome. How the baby is delivered can have different effects on the types and diversity of microorganisms.6,7
A baby’s diet can change its oral microbiome, as can the eruption of new teeth. This is one reason why probiotics have become popular among pregnant and nursing mothers.
Oral Microbiota And Your Health
The same biofilms we need to be healthy may also cause us harm. The primary example of this is periodontal disease. Also known as gum disease, periodontal disease occurs when plaque stays on teeth and gums for a long time. This includes the hardened version of plaque, called tartar. Periodontal disease can take many forms. These range from simple gum inflammation to more extreme cases that involve complex treatment.8
What we now know about oral microbiota is changing how oral health professionals approach their craft. Bacteria in the mouth is not, in fact, a bad thing. It’s the presence of the wrong kind of bacteria that causes problems. The wrong kind of bacteria can throw off the delicate mouth microbiome. This can potentially trigger several oral health conditions.
To be clear, it’s not like every single shift in your microbiome leads to problems. The oral microbiome changes as your body changes and as you age.9 It’s a natural process. Certain situations make this process more difficult, including poor oral hygiene. Lifestyle choices, like smoking, are another problem that can throw off your mouth microbiome.10,11
If you have a poor oral microbiome, you may have other issues elsewhere in the body. Studies have shown a link between the types of bacteria in your mouth and the risk for several health conditions.12,13 Some studies also suggest that the reverse may hold true as well. These show links between certain health conditions and changes in oral bacteria.14 As a result, some doctors believe the oral microbiome may become a good diagnostic tool, in time.15
When it comes to improving your microbiome, some have it better than others. The gut microbiome was the first to get serious scientific attention. As a result, most probiotics target this area. For now, though, the mouth is a bit harder. Out of the roughly 700 estimated bacteria types, scientists have only classified a fraction of them. Also, when it comes to supplements, there are few out there at the moment targeted towards oral health. A lack of offerings makes it difficult to come to a scientific conclusion on what works.16
So, how can you keep your oral microbiome in top shape? The best option at the moment is to continue practicing good oral hygiene. And this means more than brushing and flossing. Visit a dentist for your regular checkups. Not only can they check for cavities and the like, they can also notice changes in your oral health. Poor oral health may mean more than just a toothache if not attended to.
The Gut = Oral Health Connection
The human microbiome is a marvel. And it’s one that the scientific community may never be able to fully unravel.
What we do know at this point is that there are several different microbiomes within this larger one. These include the gut, skin, mouth, and the uterus in women.
All these play vital roles in how our body works, but the mouth is unique. The mouth constantly comes into contact with different microbes in the environment. And most of these microbes pass through the oral microbiome and into the body. A direct line to the gut means that the oral microbiome plays a vital role in the bacterial balance in your body.
Just the Beginning of Discovery
We know the biofilms created by these microbiota play a role in periodontal disease and other oral problems. But there is much more to learn. What shifts in microbes lead to oral health issues? How do changes in the oral microbiome affect the rest of the body? More research could yield these answers.
Science is still trying to piece together the best approach to help the oral microbiome. Until then, keep up good oral hygiene. And, try rethinking what you’re doing when you brush your teeth. Rather than cleaning out bacteria, think about it as bringing balance to your mouth. By doing this, you’re setting up a balanced gut, and your entire body will thank you.
For more about good bacteria’s role in your health, keep reading: