Our oral microbiome, like our gut microbiome, is populated (or some may say, seeded) from birth. There is emerging evidence to suggest that the mode of birth delivery and early breastfeeding habits affect the development of the oral microbiome and may impact long term oral and overall health (Dzidic, Collado & Abrahamsson, 2018).
We need larger and longer trials to understand just how so. With a further established genetic link predisposing us to periodontal (gum) disease (Larsson, 2017), it may seem that much of our oral microbiome is out of our control. However, aside from the familiar importance of oral hygiene, we have an opportunity to proactively nurture our oral microbiome through diet and lifestyle.
The food we eat is not only nourishing us, but our oral microbes too. A diet that includes a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, particularly those rich in alpha-lipoic acid and vitamin C, like leafy greens and broccoli, show a positive effect on our immune response that characterises periodontal disease (Milward, Chapple & Carter, 2013). Including plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in oily fish (think SMASH – salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring), is also supportive for the oral microbiome. A nutrient-rich diet that is low in refined carbohydrates has a down-regulatory role on our inflammatory status and thus our gum disease status (Chapple, 2009) and is also protective in reducing our risk of oral cancer (Kapil, Singh & Bahadur, 2003).
It is important to be mindful of regular intakes of damaging extrinsic ‘free’ sugars and be able to identify them, since they are often hidden in foods we would not expect. Sugars found naturally in whole fruit and vegetables do not count as ‘free sugars’. They are known as intrinsic sugars. ‘Free’ sugars are sugars that are released from their protected intrinsic form through processing, eg. juicing. Choose whole fruit over juices and smoothies and remember ‘free sugars’ are also natural sugars, found in honey or maple syrup and added sugars, hidden in table sauces like tomato ketchup. Indulge knowingly and remember moderation is key!
Enjoying varied fruit and veg is not only good for gut health but is essential for oral health too. Plentiful in polyphenols and high in fibre too, we are promoting oral and gut microbiota diversity, whilst stimulating saliva flow through the chewing action these fibrous foods demand. Similarly, a diet low in refined carbohydrates is supportive for oral health since these foods can accumulate on your teeth, acting as a substrate for bad bacteria to cling onto and give rise to bad breath.
Consuming foods containing live bacteria, especially fermented dairy foods like kefir and natural yoghurt, may support beneficial oral bacteria and inhibit the production of volatile sulphur compounds (VSCs) in the mouth. VSCs are the smelly compounds produced by anaerobic bacteria in our mouths, so by banishing them away, we can keep bad breath at bay (Suzuki, Yoneda & Takeshita, 2019).
Stress is closely linked to gut health and oral health, so by adopting a healthy, active lifestyle that embraces some form of mindful exercise such as yoga, we can help to manage our stress levels. A lifestyle that allows plenty of reparative sleep will also help reduce stress and support our oral and gut microbiomes. More on that here.
Hydration is key to gut health but upping our fluid intake can also prevent dry mouth. Aim for around two litres of water per day, remembering this can include herbal teas, or hot water with added fresh mint or grated ginger. Ginger has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties against pathogenic oral bacteria too (Giriraju & Yunus, 2013).