Today’s post will talk about how your efforts at oral hygiene reach far beyond those teeth/gums. What you do in the mouth affects your entire body and in particular, brain health. How can we use this knowledge to be our best, healthiest self? It’s time to get to know what is really going on in your mouth and mind your microbes.
About ten years ago I pondered why our senior citizens all seemed to have such chronic diseases. Chronic diseases seem to have taken over. Six in 10 people have a chronic disease and four in 10 have two or more! I further wondered what I was doing (or not doing) to set the stage for this seeming eventuality for myself. I thought I was eating correctly and exercising about five times a week. What more could I do to ensure my health and vitality? And even more important, what was I doing wrong? How was I silently setting the stage for chronic diseases to slide into my body to create havoc and destruction and my decline in health?
Turns out, I was doing lots wrong. In my deep dive to become healthier and take better care of myself, I found even more evidence that oral health, or rather the lack of it plays a huge role in not only the mouth but (no surprise) our entire body.
Let’s review the pillars of health- what it takes to become the “best you” for the rest of your life. This will be a several-part series to discuss improving the immune system and preventing chronic disease. Part 1 is all about the microbes in the mouth. Join me and be inspired to “up your dental health game” to ensure you live to a healthy 100 years old.
My plan is to be a vibrant healthy 100 year old kick-A$$ old lady- wearing purple hair and traveling the globe and then I know there’s a beach somewhere that needs walking or maybe relaxing…
Your mouth is home to not only bacteria, but also viruses, parasites, and fungi. Ninety-nine percent of these bugs are healthy, and are what we call commensals. They are the good guys. We need to have a healthy garden of the “good” microbes in not only our mouths but throughout the entire body and especially our gut.
A healthy mouth is a sign our gut microbiome is healthy as well. Seventy to 80% of our immune system resides in our gut so if the gut lining is”dysbiotic” (unhealthy) then our immune system cannot work properly. Leaky, bleedy gums mean the gut is also leaky, and then the arteries are leaky and our brain is also leaky. Even a little bit of bleeding is a sign of infection and inflammation. And thus begins chronic disease.
Good Bugs, Bad Bugs
As a registered dental hygienist, I have given my share of floss and toothbrush instructions with an emphasis on tooth and gum health. And, I have gotten an equal share of eye rolls and disinterested head nods. Most folks think they do a fine job and have no need for further instructions. Yet, tooth decay is at epidemic levels, as is periodontal disease (or as you may know it- gingivitis or gum disease). Why does this matter since your gums have always bled, you get your cavities filled, you have no pain, and you see your fabulous dental hygienist every six months? Perfection, right? Maybe, but then again, maybe not.
If your gums bleed, even a little, or if you have had a cavity within the last few years, your good microbiome may be “out of whack”! The bad guys are taking over for a variety of reasons.
As a biological dental hygienist I am looking deeper for the root causes of your dental diseases. I study the microbiome every time I see a patient for treatment. I take a sample of the plaque from deep beneath the gum line and place that plaque on a slide and examine it with my phase contrast microscope.
I confess, I love using my microscope. Seeing those tiny buggers creeping and crawling all over that slide, waving at us makes my job very interesting. It also makes it so much easier because seeing is believing. My patients quickly ask, “what do I need to do to change the bad bugs to good bugs?” Their next question is “when can you treat my family?”
The good bugs in both the mouth and the gut protect us. They keep us healthy and ward off disease. They truly protect us from infection. Good microbes make vitamins, regulate our immune systems, and form a living resistance to infection by the bad bugs. We need them as much as they need us. They even help us lose weight! Wow! Let’s hear it for the good bugs!
To see the microbe slides, click on the photos and that will take you to Youtube and see the bacteria in action.
The bad bugs live within the good bugs but in the correct proportions, so they are kept in check by the good guys. Our strategy should be to promote and help flourish them rather than kill off everything. Antimicrobial mouthwash does just that and kills off every bug, good as well as bad.
The good microbes in your mouth help contribute to the production of something called nitric oxide (NO). NO is critical for our health. Without it we cannot heal. It opens up our blood vessels so our heart does not have to pump so hard. It even reduces blood clots, which reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Research shows that mouthwashes that kill everything causes high blood pressure. Put down the mouthwash and instead feed the good bacteria so they can take over your mouth.
Seed, Feed and Weed Your Microbes
Your microbiome is unique to you although we do share our microbes with those we love. In one 10-second French kiss, we share 80 million microbes. When we share drinks or lick a baby’s pacifier, we again share our germs, good and bad. So, rather than worry about inoculating someone with our bad bugs, let’s concentrate on feeding our good bugs and helping them flourish!
Good bacteria need good food. We have all heard of probiotics but have you learned about “prebiotics”? Prebiotics and probiotics work together to create a healthy body. Prebiotics are foods that feed and grow the good microbes. Prebiotic foods such as apples, (unripe) bananas, asparagus, garlic, and onions are fiberous and undigestable so pass through the first stage of digestion. As they reach the small intestine and the colon they are fermented by the gut microflora. A healthy, well fed gut flora can reduce inflammation and boost your immune system.
Probiotics are living bacteria found in fermented foods and in probiotic supplements, and also need to bypass the upper part of the digestive track. Kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and yogurt are actually health foods and contain live baceria. Probiotics seed the gut and help increase microbial diversity. Diversity is important for gut health.
Weed out the bad bugs by the food chioces you make. Sugar, simple carbohydrates and antibiotics all play a part in gut dysbiosis.
Measuring the Microbes
As Dr. Paul Keyes said: “A dental hygienist without a microscope is like a doctor without a stethoscope.” And we would never trust a doctor to tell us anything about our hearts without listening to it.
We as a profession need to know more about what’s lurking underneath the gum line, in the furrows of the tongue, and hanging out in the tonsils. Yes, many of the same microbes hang out on the tongue, and in the tonsillar crypts. Bad breath is a direct result of stinky smelly tonsil stones or “fermented” plaque biofilm on the back of the tongue.
In a healthy mouth, the microbes present differently than they do in a diseased mouth. A healthy plaque sample is quiet, with no moving or waving parts, all calm and serene. In disease, it is a crazy mixed-up mess of a cesspool of frenzied activity. I explain to my patients what I look for, show them a diagram of what we want in health, and then focus on their slide. They know immediately how good or not good their slide is health-wise. The next question they ask is: is this contagious? And then they further ask; what do I need to do to get rid of this?
The best part? They go home and do it.
The thing is- if we can see those bacteria, fungi, and parasites, why would we wait to do treatment until there is bone loss and widespread infection? I want to help my patients PREVENT disease. Dental hygienists are “disease prevention specialists”. That microscope shows me who all is living there BEFORE they even cause irreversible damage. When you can see bone loss on an x-ray or find it with the periodontal probe, it is too late! Damage and destruction have already occurred.
And the next thing to know: good toothbrushing can mask what is really going on below the gums. Tissues can look healthy, pink, and pretty but harbor all those nasties deep in the gum tissues, on the back of the tongue, or even, in the tonsils.
https://youtube.com/shorts/ddkb_3oO4KY?feature=share check out the bacteria in a tonsil stone.
Dental folks may think they know what’s going on underneath the gum line but without a way to test or see them, but they would be wrong. I have taken slides on folks I thought quite healthy but surprise, surprise. All was not good. I have had to do a pivot and take back my words of “looking healthy” and instead start talking about disease and treatment plans. But that’s the beauty of the microscope. It tells me what I need to know to help my patients be healthy right now. (I do NOT want you to stop brushing- but rather, test, regardless of what things look like. Brushing is still important.)
Microbes on the Move
The microbes don’t just stay in the mouth. We swallow them, inhale them, and introduce them into our bloodstream every time we brush, chew, swallow, or have any kind of dental work done. We call this a “bacteremia”. It takes less than 60 seconds to flood every part of our bodies with these bugs. These bad bugs then lodge elsewhere within the body. They have found oral pathogens within the atherosclerotic plaque in the arteries, in the synovial fluid in arthritic joints, brain abscesses, and in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients. The bad bugs sure get around and are the cause of many chronic diseases.
Alzheimer’s disease is now officially caused by periodontal pathogens. I wanted to emphasis this again as this is so new and so important to address. Dementia is set to triple by the year 2050. Oral health has never been so important. The spirochetes you see on my video slides are a big source of the problem. And we can see them now! Before they enter the brain and cause issues. I see them is people of all ages – so yes, in children…
Then there’s this: bacteria from gum disease can trigger a heart attack or stroke up to 30 days after a dental procedure. Yes, you read that correctly! Your dental appointment can be the spark that causes a heart attack.
Periodontal disease increases the carotid intima-media thickness. (That’s the stuff that lines the arteries that contributes to heart problems.) And contributes to the establishment of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
They travel across the placenta and cause preterm, low birth weight babies or even worse, or stillbirth.
They have also been found guilty of increasing your risk of many cancers such as pancreatic cancer, esophageal cancer, and colorectal cancer.
“Porphyromonas gingivalis and Fusobacterium nucleatum, two main oral pathogens in periodontitis pathology, involved in instigating tumorigenesis.” (Our salivary diagnostic tests can see if you have these pathogens in your mouth. More on that in a moment.)
Yet, nobody is connecting these chronic conditions back to the most likely source – “The Mouth” and the microbes that live there. We NEED to be testing yearly, just like your annual physical, your mammogram, or your prostate exam. This is a life-enhancing test.
But you say there are no dental offices that do this in your neighborhood. You are probably correct. It is rare. Although they do exist. Dental members of the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology (IAOMT) are a great place to start your search.
Here’s the thing, just ten years ago there were no organic sections in the grocery store either, but people demanded it and now, every store does.
(But food for thought: if there is a health food section of the store, what does that make the rest of the food sold there?” Dr. Mark Hyman)
PLEASE ask your dental office to evaluate your plaque microbiome. Ask them to please test your saliva. Especially if you have bleeding gums or tooth decay. (Bleeding gums and tooth decay are red flags there are dysbiotic infective microbes in YOUR mouth and thus circulating in YOUR body! Causing CHRONIC diseases, the leading cause of Disease and death.)
Meet Your Microbes: Salivary Diagnostics
Meanwhile, what can you do?
#1. Ask your dental hygienist to do salivary diagnostics. This means they order tests kits from salivary diagnostic companies. You then swish and spit into a test tube and this gets sent to the company for culture and analysis.
#2. And for those adventurous types, and you can’t wait? You can order your own home test kit from a new company selling directly to the public. Bristle health
I recommend running all the tests you can: Periodontal pathogens, tooth decay, fungal, viral and genetics. Yes, there is a cost, but it is an investment in your health. Money well spent.
When you do use this testing, please share this information with not only your dental practitioners but also your primary care doctors. Time to also educate them as well.
The medical community still thinks of the mouth as a separate satellite world that has little to no impact on the rest of the body. They need to be reintroduced to the mouth and reconnect the mouth back onto the body, WHERE IT BELONGS (Just saying). A smart doctor will recognize this and work with you to help heal your body from the oral pathogens circulating. An uneducated doctor will look at your test results and be clueless. Find a doctor that understands or at least wants to know more. You may need to look in the naturopathic doctor community.
Mind Your Microbes: Dental Preventistry
The beauty of testing is what it reveals BEFORE chronic disease sets in. It tells you and your practitioners what could happen, rather like a crystal ball. And then you have the power to change things before damage sets in.
Test, Teach, Treat, Repeat
In my dental healthcare practice, my mantra is: test, teach, treat, repeat- until the mouth, (the oral cavity, as we call it) is healthy. I do not stop until I get a healthy microscope slide and/or salivary diagnostic report. Period. I went in to healthcare to be a healer. This is life or death and I take it very seriously.
Learn how to re-establish a healthy oral microbiome. Learn better brushing, flossing (if you floss – no judgment here), oral irrigation, nutrition, and nasal breathing to help support your immune system. Raise the pH of the mouth, feed the good bacteria and microbe, and start that healing process. Work with your primary care doctor to be sure you have the nutrients, minerals and great sleep so your body is at its healthiest best self.
Bloody gums and cavities are the canary in the coal mine – the neon sign- a red alert that things are starting a decline elsewhere in the body. Take aggressive action to stop this downward slide into chronic disease.
You are Worth It- Take Oral Health Seriously
The mouth is a window into the health of the body. By addressing the dysbiosis of the mouth, we also must address the deep issues that cause dental diseases: the chronic inflammation, the arteries, gut health, autoimmune breakdown, mineral deficiencies, and the airway- breathing dysfunction. In future blog posts, I will dive into these areas to share more about how the mouth impacts the entire body.
If you need help finding a dentist that will share your concerns, please let me know. You can search the IAOMT website. Find your tribe of like-minded preventive-oriented healthcare providers. They do exist.
*Up your dental game, see your dental hygienist more than twice a year. I recommend three to four visits a year. You are worth it.
*Be healthy between appointments. If you have bleeding or a new cavity, you have infection problems brewing.
*Do not settle for a “little bleeding” or “just one cavity”.
*Demand better testing, and sleuth out the best practitioners you can, even if they don’t take your insurance. In the long run, you save money and maybe even your life.
Mind Your Microbes for True Systemic Health
Your brain, your heart and your body will thank you. Oral pathogens contribute to setting the stage for chronic disease. They play a huge role in creating systemic inflammation.
Seeing the cascading effects these infections have on the entire body and the dire consequences of chronic disease and early death I hope motivates you to take action now. Be your best healthiest self. You are worth it. Join me as we reach a healthy 100 years old!
Yours in Health and Wellness,
The Biological Queen of Oral Health and Total Body Wellness