While you probably don’t count brushing and flossing as the “fun” part of your wellness routine, you do it because proper oral care is essential for preventing cavities, and no one wants to spend more time at the dentist than they have to. But your oral hygiene affects way more than just your teeth and mouth; it plays a massive role in your overall health and can say a lot about what’s going on with the body. Namely, it is directly connected to gut health. Experts are looking to oral health and dental hygiene as the root cause of many symptoms such as bloating, acid reflux, and even weight gain. To brush up on optimal oral health and get the breakdown of the mouth-gut connection, I turned to the experts. Ahead, the root of how oral health and gut health are intertwined and how best to practice proper dental hygiene.
What is the oral microbiome?
Just like we have a gut microbiome, we also have an oral microbiome—the complex community of both beneficial and harmful bacteria that inhabit the mouth. The oral cavity has the second largest and most diverse microbiota after the gut, harboring over 700 species of bacteria, and nurtures numerous microorganisms, which include bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoa. “[The oral microbiome] can be influenced by what we eat and even the manner of breathing (mouth breathing versus nasal breathing),” explained Dr. Sara Larbi, DDS, Co-Owner of The Dentist Lounge.
“Disruptions in the balance of the oral microbiome can lead to an increase in pathogenic bacteria, which are responsible for dental diseases, like gum disease and cavities, that can result in chronic inflammation and the release of harmful substances into the bloodstream and affect distant areas, including the gut.” When the oral microbiome is imbalanced with an overabundance of harmful bacteria, it can throw your gut (and the rest of your body) off-kilter.
How does oral health affect gut health?
You may have heard that digestion begins in the mouth, which typically refers to chewing food properly and fully to activate digestive enzymes in saliva and to physically break down food so the stomach doesn’t get overloaded (and therefore has less digestive discomfort). But digestion also begins in the mouth because the gut microbiome is directly affected by the bacteria in the mouth (read: dental hygiene is important for way more than preventing cavities). According to Dr. Derek Gatta, DDS, a co-founder of RiseWell, bacteria from the oral cavity travel to the gut every time we swallow. While most are harmless, some strains can cause gut dysbiosis, inflammation, and systemic diseases. Studies back that up: Oral bacteria can translocate to the gut and change its microbiota.
“The mouth is the gateway to the gut, and throughout the day, we swallow around 500-700 times, which includes both saliva and bacteria,” Dr. Larbi agreed. “When the population of bad bacteria overwhelms the good bacteria and we swallow these microorganisms up to 700 times a day, we’re essentially introducing them into the even more complex world of the gut’s microbiome. This influx of bacteria from the mouth can introduce new species into this ecosystem and impact the gut’s microbial composition.”
In addition to what we’re physically swallowing into our digestive systems, gut and oral health are linked because of a physical and chemical connection called the Oral–Gut Microbiome Axis. Think of it as a bidirectional highway between the oral cavity and the gut that allows them to communicate with each other through chemical messages. It sounds complicated, but it translates to what happens in your mouth can have an impact on your gut, and vice versa. In essence, the Oral-Gut Axis suggests that maintaining good oral health is not only important for your teeth and gums but can have broader health implications and greatly affect gut health.
Tips for Optimal Oral Health
So you know to chew thoroughly and take your gut health supplements, but if you’re not putting effort and time into an optimal dental hygiene routine, you’re missing a major piece of the gut health puzzle. Follow the expert-approved habits below to promote optimal oral health and optimal gut health.
Brush with the right kind of toothpaste
You already know you’re supposed to brush and floss, but are you doing it correctly? For one, the type of toothpaste you use greatly matters. Many toothpastes sold in stores contain fluoride, and some research has shown that ingesting more than the recommended limit of fluoride leads to toxicity and adverse effects (even the small amount of fluoride found in toothpaste and water can add up quickly). Dr. Gatta suggested brushing with hydroxyapatite toothpaste instead, which strengthens, remineralizes, and protects tooth enamel without the use of fluoride, and flossing after every meal. Also, look for non-toxic or clean toothpaste options to avoid ingesting any added toxins and chemicals. The American Dental Association recommends brushing twice a day (before eating anything, and after your last meal) for at least two minutes each.
Floss (yes, you do need to)
Hate flossing? The extra couple of minutes it takes to floss helps remove food particles and plaque that your toothbrush can’t reach. When plaque builds up between your teeth and along your gum line, you’re looking at an increased risk of tooth decay (hi, cavities) and gum disease. When food particles and plaque stay for too long–you guessed it–that’s more bad bacteria that could be swallowed into the gut. Some dentists recommend water flossers over traditional floss as they get rid of plaque while being gentle on gums. Bonus tip: Clinical herbalist Olivia Amitrano (better known as Organic Olivia) shared on The Everygirl Podcast to floss before brushing because flossing loosens the bacteria, plaque, and other residue between teeth.
Use an alcohol-free mouthwash
Not all mouthwashes are created equal. Both Dr. Larbi and Dr. Gatta advised avoiding alcohol-based mouthwashes, which tend to dry out the mouth, be acidic, destroy all bacteria (both good and bad), and wear away your teeth’s enamel, which is the protective outer layer. Instead, opt for a non-toxic or clean alcohol-free mouth rinse to get rid of bad bacteria using ingredients that won’t harm the oral microbiome.
An ancient Ayurvedic practice that involves swishing a tablespoon of coconut or sesame oil around your mouth for 15-20 minutes each day, oil pulling helps to draw out toxins and harmful bacteria. “The solubility of the oils and the bacterial cell wall membranes have a similar polarity, thereby attracting and getting absorbed into the mouth rinse and then being eliminated when spit out,” Dr. Gatta affirmed. Bonus: The natural remedy is also said to whiten teeth.
Bad bacteria, toxins, food debris, and dead cells can accumulate and form a layer on the surface of your tongue overnight while you’re sleeping, and eating or drinking with that unwanted gunk in your mouth means re-ingesting it in your body. Tongue scraping is another Ayurvedic ritual that uses a tongue scraper to get rid of all of the said bad bacteria and toxins. Other perks of tongue scraping include reducing bad breath, improving digestion, and preventing cavities. Try scraping the tongue first thing in the morning before drinking or eating anything to prevent swallowing accumulated toxins, bacteria, and debris.
Eat a diet rich in whole foods
Those pearly whites rely on good nutrition as much as your gut. A balanced diet with adequate nutrients is essential for a flourishing mouth, and in turn, a healthy mouth supports nutritional well-being, says Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Dr. Larbi shared the same sentiment, encouraging adopting a balanced diet with an emphasis on whole foods—fruits, veggies, lean proteins, whole grains, fats—for proper jaw development and nutrient intake to benefit both your oral and gut health. Dr. Gatta also advocated minimizing your exposure to sugar as sugar digestion leads to the acids that cause tooth decay and bacteria build-up.