How Your Life Affects Your Mouth
Nearly everything has to go through your mouth to get to the rest of you, from food and air, to bacteria and viruses, to environmental toxins. A healthy mouth can help your body get what it needs and prevent it from harm—with adequate space for air to travel to your lungs, and healthy teeth and gums that prevent microbes from entering your bloodstream. From the moment you are conceived, oral health impacts every aspect of your life and that of your children.
What happens in the mouth is usually just the tip of the iceberg and a reflection of what is happening in other parts of the body. Poor oral health can be a result of systemic disease, or the cause of it. The microorganisms in an unhealthy mouth can cause not only cavities and gum disease, but also chronic inflammation. And they can enter the bloodstream and travel anywhere in the body, posing serious health risks. Similarly, an underdeveloped mouth can not only result in dental crowding and bite problems, it can also obstruct the airway and interfere with breathing and oxygen intake, potentially affecting every cell in the body. Airway obstruction can also cause sleep-disordered breathing, with health consequences ranging from obesity to cardiovascular disease.
From Oral Health To Oral Disease
Your mouth is filled with billions of microbes. In a healthy mouth, this microbiome population is balanced and even helps in the mineral exchange between your teeth and saliva. Saliva maintains the pH balance and creates the right environment for the microbiome to thrive. Saliva also provides nutrients and antibodies to protect your mouth against infections.
In an unhealthy mouth, the microbiome can get out of balance, switching from helpful to harmful. These microbes can produce waste products that can damage the teeth and gums. This tooth damage, otherwise known as cavities, may initially be minor and limited to the enamel, but if not treated can extend all the way into the pulp of the tooth where the blood vessels and nerves are located. From there, the infection can enter the bloodstream and cause systemic damage.
The same can happen with the gums. The bacteria, or their by-products, can cause periodontal disease ranging from gingivitis (which is limited to the inflammation of the gums and is usually reversible), to periodontitis (which involves irreversible destruction of supporting tissues like the bone, cementum, and periodontal ligament).
Periodontal disease has been shown to be a significant contributing factor to many systemic conditions, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, and others. All this from bacteria entering the bloodstream through bleeding gums, or from systemic inflammation.
Think of your mouth as a garden and your oral microbiome as the beautiful flowers, plants, and vegetables that grow inside the garden. To keep everything healthy, you water your garden daily, cut and trim branches, and add nutrients to the soil when necessary.
But what happens if there is an issue? What if a weed grows or one of the plants catches a disease? You’d probably selectively take out the weeds or use medicine for that diseased plant and continue taking care of your overall garden. You probably wouldn’t throw weed killer on all of your plants. And what happens if you leave town for a few weeks and forget to have someone take care of your garden? When you come back, the weeds may have overgrown and taken over, and diseases may have spread, destroying your crops.
This happens in your mouth too. How well you brush or floss will determine the quantity and quality of your oral microbes, and what you eat or drink and how frequently you do that will favor either the helpful microbes or the harmful ones. Additionally, the oral care products you use can dramatically impact the health of your mouth and ultimately the health of your entire body.
How Cavities Form
Your oral bacteria form a sticky film called “plaque” or “dental biofilm” to attach themselves to the enamel of your teeth. Cavities occur when there is an imbalance of the oral bacterial population and a malfunction of the biofilm. The enamel goes through constant demineralization (losing minerals) and remineralization (gaining minerals) cycles throughout the day. Just about every time you eat or drink, the pH of your saliva drops and becomes acidic thanks to the enzymes that start the digestion of food as well as from the foods themselves. This acidic environment favors the “bad” bacteria. These bacteria digest the food and excrete acid themselves, creating a vicious cycle. The pH of saliva is normally neutral (6.7–7.3) at rest and slightly alkaline when stimulated, but once it becomes acidic and reaches around pH 5.5, some of the hydroxyapatite minerals in the enamel dissolve away from the enamel into the biofilm. When everything is functioning correctly, after about 15–30 minutes, the saliva reverses the pH and bathes the teeth with minerals, which are then absorbed into the teeth.
In a healthy mouth, there is a balance between the demineralization and remineralization of the enamel, and the teeth stay healthy. But if there is a breakdown in that process—for example, if there is too much sugar in the diet or the person is eating and drinking too frequently—the saliva can’t put the minerals back fast enough to protect the enamel. If this continues for a long time, the prolonged low pH will cause the oral microbiome balance to shift from healthy to unhealthy and oral disease will take over.
Risk Factors For Developing Cavities
Of course, sugar is one of the worst culprits when it comes to enamel care, but it’s not the only one. Other refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and acidic foods can all lead to cavities.
It’s not just the bad things in our diet that can cause cavities. Oftentimes, it’s what’s missing from our diets that is the problem. For example, calcium is a key nutrient for healthy bones and teeth. However, without the adequate amounts of vitamins A, D, and K2, calcium will not be deposited where it needs to go, no matter how much of it you consume. Although most Americans get adequate amounts of vitamin A from food, almost everyone is significantly deficient in vitamins D and K2 because of our lifestyles and changes in our modern diets. Vitamin D helps transport calcium from your intestines, and vitamin K2 helps activate the proteins needed to pull the calcium from blood and direct it into your teeth and bones. Without sufficient amounts of these nutrients, your teeth will not be able to grow healthy and adequately protect themselves against damage.
#2 pH balance
pH is a measurement that allows us to know if a solution is acidic or alkaline. It ranges from 1 (acidic) to 14 (alkaline) with 7 being neutral. What you put in your mouth, and how often, affects the delicate pH balance of your oral microbiome. Eating acidic foods and sugar are just two ways that we disrupt the pH balance, but smoking, drugs, and using harsh toothpastes and mouthwashes also tilt the balance toward the acidic, allowing the bad microbes to multiply. The more alkaline your saliva, the more it favors the “good” bacteria, and the more acidic the pH is, the more the “bad” microbes thrive.
#3 Lack of saliva
Dry mouth affects about a third of the population, and most people suffer from it at some point. Some causes are mouth-breathing, medical issues, medications, poor diet, and stress.
Even though people commonly blame their ancestors for their oral health problems, only 10 percent have genetic causes. Ninety percent of all cavities are related to the environment or are associated with oral care, which means they are controlled by us.
Antibiotics, antibacterial products, and potent essential oils can decimate the oral microbiome.
#6 Poor oral care routine
Poor brushing and flossing can result in biofilm that becomes too thick, turning into tartar or calculus, which tilts the balance from oxygen-dependent aerobic bacteria to opportunistic and aggressive anaerobic bacteria.
Restoring The Habitat
Eating as many natural, whole, organic foods as possible is a great first step. Avoiding excess sugar and processed foods will go a long way toward supporting your biology. But we’ve not only changed the nutritional composition of our foods for the worse—the bacteria we’re contending with today are some tough stock too. Today, it takes more than good eating to keep your mouth and body healthy.
It seems the more we learn, the more we realize that there has been much greater wisdom in nature than we ever gave it credit for. Maybe it’s time to gain some humility: stop interfering with nature and work with it instead. Millions of years of evolution will inevitably create more elegant, balanced solutions than a few centuries of scientific inquiry ever could. With that in mind, here are a few things you can do to help your microscopic cohabitants:
Eat as much natural, whole, organic, fermented, and high-fiber foods as possible.
- Decrease consumption of sugar and processed foods.
- Avoid frequent snacking throughout the day.
- Reduce stress, as it may impact bacterial diversity.
- Exercise regularly to boost your “good” microbes.
- Quit smoking.
- Get at least seven hours of quality sleep every night.
- Get dirty: play outside, work in the garden, and so on.
- Get a pet to increase your overall microbial diversity.
- Avoid antibiotics as much as possible.
- Avoid antiseptic cleaning products.
- Avoid antibacterial soaps.
- Don’t use harsh toothpastes and mouthwashes.
- Take care of your mouth.
- Parents-to-be: consider natural (vaginal) birth and breastfeeding.
Your Oral Care Products Must Be S.U.P.E.R.™
Every oral care product you’re considering for your family must pass the S.U.P.E.R. checklist:
Our environments are full of substances that can damage health—from pesticides and heavy metals in the food we eat, to car exhaust and other pollutants in the air we breathe, to toxic materials in cleaning products and furniture.
Unfortunately, many of the conventional oral care products contain, at the very least, questionable safety components, and some have downright toxic and dangerous ingredients. And don’t be fooled by just any “natural” product, either. Many “natural” toothpastes simply replace certain toxic ingredients with others, and they still use ones that they shouldn’t. For example, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a foaming ingredient often used in “natural” toothpastes that can, under certain circumstances, damage the soft tissues of the mouth, cause canker sores, and even be toxic to the body when used in large quantities.
Ingredients from oral care products can be absorbed through the tissues and mucous membranes in the mouth and enter the bloodstream. From there, they can travel throughout the body. And what are the chances that your child swallows some of the toothpaste or mouthwash they use? Almost 100 percent. So, ingredients matter a lot.
You should always think of your oral care products as a system, or as a group of unified products that should work together and complement each other to accomplish your oral health goals.
Your mouth care products are only as good as the weakest link. For example, if you’re doing everything right, but you’re decimating your oral microbiome with that swish of fluorescent alcoholic mouthwash, you could be negating all your efforts.
Brush, floss, rinse, spit, repeat! Let’s be honest, oral care is not something we typically associate with fun. Many people dislike (okay, hate) the dentist and practice good oral care begrudgingly. They reluctantly brush and exaggerate about how much they floss to their dentists and do the absolute minimum just to get by. But what if people loved taking care of their mouths?
Our psychological associations with oral care are formed when we are young. Whether these associations are positive or negative depends on our early experiences. What would it be like to have your kids beg you to buy them their oral care products and use them enthusiastically and with pride? What if they were the oral health ambassadors in your family? They can and they should be.
Some products are safe but only partially effective (or even completely ineffective) in promoting oral health and treating disease. Of course, there are products that are unsafe and ineffective. For example, many of the so-called “natural” toothpastes or mouthwashes don’t have any ingredients that effectively protect or support the mouth, while having antibacterial ingredients, such as potent essential oils, that can indiscriminately destroy the delicate balance of your oral microbiome. And, of course, oral care products should try to help support all parts of your mouth: teeth from outside and inside, the gums and bones, and your microbiome.
Your oral care products should be selected based on quality, science, and clinical research, and the results you and your children are looking for, rather than on the latest trend, or what some random person on social media or in the grocery store with little to no knowledge of dentistry recommends.
If Your Mouth Could Talk, It Would Say…
“Care for Me Like Your Life Depends on It … Because It Does.”
To paraphrase Albert Einstein, life is like riding a bicycle—to keep moving, you must keep your balance. Our bodies are all about keeping balance too. Remember, your body is a community. Microbes live on and inside of you all the time, and they keep you healthy or make you sick, depending on how well they are balanced and maintained.
The complex reality is that oral health depends on so many factors: the balance of the oral microbiome you start with, the oral microbiome of caregivers and family members, oral hygiene, diet, saliva, immune function, breastfeeding, airway health, mouth-breathing, oral care products, oral habits, environmental toxins, the growth and development of the structures of the mouth, dental and orthodontic factors—it’s all a part of your complete oral health picture. Your microbiome interacts in a delicate and complex dance with your genetics (the DNA blueprint in your cells that you’re born with) and epigenetics (the changes your environment makes to your DNA). All of this contributes to your oral health and whether or not you develop illnesses.
Of course, none of us wake up one day suffering from obesity or cardiovascular disease. We don’t suddenly end up with an anxiety disorder or chronic depression. The roots of most of life’s challenges are in childhood, and if they’re not addressed at the time, they gradually change the direction of our lives. These changes happen so slowly we might not notice, until one day, we don’t recognize the person in the mirror.
What Is It Going To Take To Turn Things Around?
Culturally, it’s going to take a massive push from all sides—from medical and dental professionals, and from our government. We will have to shift our thinking, values, and social norms to focus on whole body health. We must consider feeding bodies and microbes rather than taste buds. We must expect our government to support the wholesome food, access to health care, and clean environments we all need to thrive.
When you zoom in from the big picture to the family, and even further to the individual, change starts to feel easier. Just look at your own life. What habits are hurting you? Do you have personal obstacles like fear of dentistry or misplaced priorities that get in the way? How are you caring for your family’s oral health at home? What are you eating that might be better left in the sealed, colorful bag on the grocery store shelf? Are you sleeping well?
Try this thought experiment: What if we could go back in time, knowing what we know now, and do things a little differently? What if we ate a little healthier, got a little more physical activity, reduced the toxicities around us, didn’t overuse antibiotics, and took better care of our mouths … would things turn out differently?
Luckily, we have that opportunity. Although we cannot travel back through time (yet), we do have the ability to correct the health mistakes of our past. If you have children, you also have the power to create a very different story for them. And that story will continue because these habits are learned. Building this good health into the next generation is a revolutionary act! This is how cultures change.