Probiotics, Prebiotics, & Oral Health

bacteriaMost all of us grow up being taught that “germs” cause disease and that the best defense is to kill them. But science has shown that this is an oversimplification.

We know that the environment in which pathogens exist makes a big difference in whether they thrive or not – just as soil quality and other environmental factors determine whether a plant thrives or not.

We also know that our bodies contain more bacteria than human cells. We’re beginning to understand how the makeup of our microbiome can affect our health for better or for worse. As microbiological John G. Thomas has put it,

The accepted concept today is that there are multiple organisms with the ability to interact in multiple ways. The means of bringing these biofilm communities back into balance is best achieved not through use of antimicrobials, but by reestablishing a normal flora, aided by probiotic agents.

You already probably know a bit about probiotics – bacteria that support good health. You can get them naturally through fermented foods, yogurt, and some cheeses. You can also get them through supplements or foods fortified with them. So far, the research on their dental benefits in particular has been quite promising, showing how probiotics may stave off caries (tooth decay), periodontal (gum) disease, bad breath, and more.

Meanwhile, the focus has shifted away from “killing germs” to supporting the balance of helpful and harmful bacteria in the mouth. Indeed, it would be impossible – let alone desirable – to remove all microbes from the mouth, or even just the bad ones. There are billions of them in even the cleanest mouth, representing several hundred different species.

What we want is for the good to outweigh microbes like P. gingivalis and S. mutans that generate oral disease. Probiotics may help, and so might prebiotics.

Where probiotics are the actual healthy bacteria, prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that help probiotics work their magic. Again, Dr. Thomas:

Prebiotics are food ingredients that stimulate the growth and/or activity of bacteria in the digestive system, in ways claimed to be beneficial to health. Marcel Roberfroid offered a refined definition in the Journal of Nutrition stating, “A prebiotic is a selectively fermented ingredient that allows specific changes, both in the composition and/or activity in the gastrointestinal microflora that confers benefits upon host well-being and health.” Prebiotics effectively stimulate the colonization of the probiotic microorganisms, providing an initial advantage to their adherence.

Earlier this year, scientists writing in the Journal of Clinical Periodontology identified two compounds that could be effective as oral prebiotics specifically.

Two compounds, beta-methyl-d-galactoside and N-acetyl-d-mannosamine, could be identified as potential oral prebiotic compounds, triggering selectively beneficial oral bacteria throughout the experiments and shifting dual species biofilm communities towards a beneficial dominating composition at in vitro level.

Our observations support the hypothesis that nutritional stimulation of beneficial bacteria by prebiotics could be used to restore the microbial balance in the oral cavity and by this promote oral health.

Even though much research remains to be done on prebiotics for oral health, some hygiene products have begun to emerge. It’s a bit too early to gauge how helpful they may be.

Stay tuned for further developments…

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