Why Yogurt (and Other Fermented Foods) May Help Keep Your Mouth Healthy

vintage milk adAsk someone to name a food associated with good dental health, and you’re apt to hear “dairy.” You can thank its calcium content and decades of advertising for that.

Calcium is one of the key minerals needed to keep tooth enamel strong. (Magnesium and phosphorous are the two other biggies.) And some research has suggested that it might play a role in maintaining healthy gums, as well.

But a new study in PLoS ONE suggests that it may not be the calcium at all but probiotics in fermented dairy products such as yogurt.

Researchers analyzed periodontal and nutritional data from over 6100 Korean adults. They found that those who ate less yogurt had more gum disease than others. Those who consumed less milk or calcium, on the other hand, didn’t exhibit more periodontal issues.

In conclusion, periodonitis was significantly associated with the less intake of yogurt among the Korean adults, but the calcium contained in yogurt is not likely to cause it.

What makes yogurt different, of course, is its probiotic content – helpful microbes that help defend against disease – and previous research appears to support this.

kombuchaOf course, yogurt is hardly the only source of probiotics. Fermented foods of all kinds can be wonderful additions to your diet. These include kombucha, kimchi, tempeh, lassi, sauerkraut, raw apple cider vinegar, kefir, miso, and fermented cod liver oil.

Naturally fermented foods have been proven to show many benefits in cultures around the world. According to one recent paper in Frontiers in Microbiology, for instance,

The highest longevity observed among the people of Okinawa prefecture in Japan is mostly due to their traditional and cultural foods such as natto, miso, tofu, shoyu, fermented vegetables, cholesterol-free, low-fat, and high bioactive-compounded foods in addition to active physical activity, sound environment, happiness and other several factors.

Probiotics can also be taken with prebiotics (a/k/a synbiotics) for an even bigger impact. According to research in the Journal of Medicine and Life,

It appears that synbiotics increase survival of probiotic bacteria, stimulating their growth in the intestinal tract and improving the balance of health-promoting bacteria.

Good dietary sources of prebiotics include raw asparagus, raw garlic, onion (both raw and cooked), raw dandelion greens, raw leeks, under-ripe bananas, raw chicory root, and raw Jerusalem artichokes. (Why so much raw? Cooking can break down a lot of the helpful elements in some prebiotic foods.)

Pro- and prebiotics can be an easy addition to your daily routine for improving oral and systemic health alike, physical and mental. Maybe consider grabbing a bottle of kombucha for your next holiday party rather than that bottle of wine.

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…

Probiotic Support for Your Mouth’s Very Own Rebel Alliance

If you were to stand in front of a mirror and look deep inside your mouth, you might see some interesting things. But what you wouldn’t see are the 800 or so different types of bacteria that call your mouth home.

wide open mouthIn fact, it’s the most diverse microbial population in your body. Yep, your mouth has more kinds of bacteria than your gut! Why? Your mouth is dark and moist, has a variety of surface textures, and is constantly fed with nutrients.

In other words, it’s the perfect breeding ground.

If you’re icked out by that, thinking all microbes are the “bad guys,” think again. In our attempt to search and destroy all bacteria on our bodies, in our bodies, and in our homes, we’ve virtually ignored how beneficial so many microbes really are. Like the Rebel Alliance, they stand vigilant in an attempt to keep us healthy. And while most microbiome studies currently focus on gut flora, we might do well to remember, the mouth is actually the start of our gastrointestinal tract.

By way of digestion, your mouth is connected to your gut. That’s one reason why maintaining a diverse population of helpful bacteria in your mouth helps maintain whole body health. Research on the relationship between chronic inflammatory diseases and gum disease already proves this.

Helpful and harmful bacteria are always in relationship with each other. Like any relationship – nothing personal here – coexisting isn’t always easy. And as part of a complex ecosystem, your beneficial oral flora must not only forge relationships with each other. If they’re to survive and hold down the health fort, they must also establish relationships with your gut, skin, and urogenital tract bacteria, too.

Providing your body with probiotics – living, beneficial microbes – helps those invisible troopers bloom with healthy oral flora. In a balanced relationship with other constituents, they work as a natural defense system in your body.

The most common – and most commonly studied – strains are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Both are considered part of the normal human microbiota. They’re even present in breast milk.

But just because you’ve been weaned doesn’t mean you can’t reap the benefits of these well-studied probiotics and hundreds of others. For one, you can eat foods that contain them. These include

  • Yogurt.
  • Kefir.
  • Kimchi.
  • Fermented pickles.
  • Kombucha.
  • Sauerkraut.
  • Miso.
  • Raw cheese.
  • Buttermilk.
  • Fermented cod liver oil.
  • Tempeh.
  • Raw apple cider vinegar.

There are also a variety of supplements available to support a healthy balance of oral flora. A good biological dentist or naturopathic physician can recommend products best suited to your individual needs.

As for the oral health benefits of including probiotics in your diet? Here’s a sample of what the scientific literature has reported:

  • Improved gingival health.
  • Decreased gum bleeding.
  • Decreased inflammatory markers in saliva.
  • Decreased pocket depth in high risk groups such as smokers.
  • Reduced oral candida (yeast) counts in some populations.
  • Reduced counts of cavity-causing bacteria in saliva.
  • Reduced halitosis (bad breath).

How will YOU up your intake of probiotics to help keep both mouth and body at their healthiest?

Image by Pietro Garrone