Cultivate your oral microbiome & bust through that sticky biofilm on teeth
Your mouth is home to more than 700 species of bacteria.1 Before you shudder and reach for the mouthwash, take a moment to appreciate all that these bacteria do to support your health.
The oral microbiome not only impacts the health of your mouth. It can play a role in lung health, gut health, how your body manages blood sugar, and even your risk of heart disease. How? Let’s take a look at the work of distinguished biologic dentist Dr. Gerry Curatola, author of The Mouth-Body Connection.
Good or bad bacteria? There’s no such thing
In the mood for a healthy soda that also supports the growth of healthy gums and teeth — the start of the digestive tract? Just mix sparkling mineral water, a few ounces of CocoBiotic, 12 to 15 drops of stevia (or to your taste), and a splash of lemon or lime juice.
Dr. Curatola doesn’t believe in “good” or “bad” bacteria per se.
Instead, he says that commensal bacteria in the mouth can behave well or poorly, depending on the lay of the land. This oral terrain depends on the whole microbiome in the mouth, with some “bad” bacteria being totally benign when kept in check by an overall healthy mouth microbiome. The commensal bacteria in the gut can also swing either way — depending on the environment or the terrain.
Of course, the mouth isn’t just teeming with bacteria. There are fungi, viruses, yeasts, and protozoa on our teeth, gums, tongue, and elsewhere in the oral cavity. These microorganisms set up housekeeping in an incredibly complex area of the body with a mixture of hard and soft surfaces and conditions that can range from dry overnight to flooded with saliva in anticipation of a meal.
These microorganisms don’t just occupy the oral terrain — they shape it too.
The species making up the mouth microbiome have a symbiotic relationship with their human hosts, playing vital roles in keeping the mouth healthy. Some bacteria transport minerals from saliva to the teeth, supporting mineralization to keep teeth strong and hard.
Bacteria also carry oxygen to the gums and soft tissues, help eliminate free radicals and metabolic waste products, and prevent pathogens (disease-causing microbes) from sticking to the tissues in the mouth and causing infection.
A healthy mouth microbiome is made up mostly of aerobic bacteria. These bacteria rely on oxygen to live, and they form a biofilm over the teeth and gums to protect themselves and the tissues and to keep gums oxygenated and teeth clean.
An upset microbiome can mean:
- A biofilm composed of pathogenic bacteria becomes sticky, thick, and smelly, causing halitosis (bad breath) and noticeable white spittle or plaque on the gums and teeth.
- When this state of hypertrophic biofilm persists, the conditions are set for bleeding gums, tooth decay, dental caries, and gum disease, as well as the transfer of undesirable bacteria and viruses to lung tissue.
- Conversely, as the biofilm deteriorates — for example, by smoking — this can result in mouth ulcers, gum irritation, tooth sensitivity, and, eventually, receding gums.
Gum disease increases your risk of meeting ADA guidelines for diabetes screening by an average of 30 percent.2 And, shockingly, nearly half (42 percent) of American adults over the age of 30 have periodontitis, with 7.8 percent living with the most severe form of gum disease.3
Studies show that the microbiome in your mouth can have a big impact on respiratory health by affecting the microbiome in your lungs.4 Your oral microbiome also “seeds” the rest of your gastrointestinal tract, with around half (45 percent) of the microbes in your mouth found in the colon. Managing a healthy oral microbiome is vital for all-around good health, but that doesn’t mean eradicating every last pathogen.
The key? Looking after your mouth microbiome holistically. These are simple steps you can take at home, with help from a DIY tooth powder recipe.
How poor oral health opens the door to bacteria
Dr. Curatola notes that naturopaths focus more on the health of the terrain (i.e., the oral microbiome) than the seed (i.e., the bacteria) when looking at the pathogenesis or origins of disease.
Instead of following the now-outdated germ theory of “bacteria = disease,” Curatola and other holistic practitioners have long adhered to the paradigm that tooth decay and gum disease are a result of imbalances in the conditions in the mouth, not the presence of bacteria.
This kind of thinking was highlighted over a decade ago when The Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA) stated that periodontal disease is an archetypal biofilm disease.5 What they meant was that tooth and gum disease wasn’t caused by a single bacteria or virus – periodontal disease is a “community” effort, sort of like an environmental problem.
If conditions in the oral cavity are poor, anaerobic bacteria such as Streptococcus mutans, which can cause tooth decay, and the gingivitis-causing bacteria Porphymona gingervalis can bloom and create ripe terrain for the progression of gum disease.
Keep your mouth healthy, and you can keep these pathogens in check.
3 ways to support your oral microbiome & a DIY tooth powder recipe
It can help to:
1. Change your diet.
According to Dr. Curatola, diet is an important factor in maintaining a healthy oral microbiome. This means keeping refined carbohydrates to a minimum as these acid-producing foods eat away at enamel and cause tooth decay, in addition to upsetting the balance of microflora in the mouth.
Along with cutting down on sugar and refined carbs, other factors that encourage a healthy microbiome in the mouth include:
- Avoiding strong antiseptic mouthwashes.
- Minimizing or cutting out alcohol.
- Quitting smoking and not chewing tobacco.
- Reducing stress wherever possible.
- Taking steps to better manage unavoidable stress in healthy ways.
Why would stress have any effect on the mouth microbiome? Ever felt that “dry mouth” feeling when you’re worried about something? That’s right — when you’re stressed, your salivary glands stop producing as much saliva, and that dryness can upset the mouth’s bacterial balance.
Stress also causes a shift in the acid-alkali balance in the mouth, creating more acidic conditions that favor pathogenic microorganisms. And stress can even make us clench our jaws or grind our teeth in our sleep (or when awake!), which can lead to inflammation, pain, and worn-down teeth vulnerable to decay.
The mouth is the first stop in the digestive tract too, with a variety of enzymes present in the mouth to coat food and begin breaking it down into smaller macro- and micronutrients that can be absorbed and used by the body. So, any decrease in saliva or change in the oral pH can have a knock-on effect for the digestion of food, the absorption of minerals, and the nutrients available to support healthy gums and teeth, creating a vicious cycle.
Dr. Curatola recommends what he calls Triple-A nutrition: alkalizing, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant-rich foods. This looks like a diet high in fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, as well as fermented foods, especially kefir, cultured vegetables, sauerkraut, kimchi, and fermented pickles.
“I owe my life to Body Ecology.” Read more testimonials about the Body Ecology Diet here.
2. Double-down on good oral hygiene.
Keeping your teeth and gums clean is an essential part of oral health. For Dr. Curatola, this doesn’t just mean brushing, but flossing or using interdental brushes/picks at least twice a day.
As for strong antiseptic mouthwashes containing dangerous chemicals: These can sometimes do more harm than good. After all, conventional mouthwashes don’t discriminate between bacteria likely to benefit health and those that are pathogenic. And a healthy microbiome is all about balance anyway, which can be thrown off-kilter by a single swish of a potent antibacterial mouthwash containing alcohol or detergent of some kind.
You might notice that, because consumers have been told they need to kill the germs that cause plaque and gum disease, antibacterials make up most of the mouthwashes and toothpastes on the market.
In Dr. C’s opinion (and some may disagree), even mouthwashes containing essential oils and natural and homemade toothpastes containing herbal antimicrobials, like licorice and cinnamon, can be harmful to the probiotic bacteria in the mouth.
Dr. Eric Z, our friend at Natural Living Family, states that certain essential oils can actually benefit your oral health: Clove, orange, and peppermint are his top picks. They’re also ideal for oil pulling. Dr. Z notes that essential oils are safe, and research suggests that even though they’re antimicrobial, they won’t impact your oral or gut microbiome when using them. Just be sure to dilute.
Jodi Cohen, founder of Vibrant Blue Oils, is another friend of Body Ecology whose expertise is essential oils and oral wellness. She uses oils like clove, oregano, thyme, and peppermint to bust up sticky biofilms on teeth; clove, cinnamon, and peppermint can also work well for oil pulling, helping to draw out pathogenic bacteria. You can learn more about essential oils from Jodi at the free Parasympathetic Summit, online from November 9 to 15, 2020. Donna is one of Jodi’s guest experts on the summit.
All in all, Dr. Curatola recommends taking an inventory of your oral care products, including any homemade/DIY tooth powder recipes you’ve made. You may be surprised at the probiotic-killing chemicals lurking in your bathroom cabinet.
Check to see if any toothpastes, flosses, mouthwash, teeth cleaning strips, or other oral care products have:
- Artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sodium saccharin)
- Coal tar or other color dyes
- Diethanolamine (DEA)
- Microbeads (microplastics, which are bad for you and worse for the environment!)
- Propylene glycol
- Sodium fluoride
- Sodium laurel/laureth sulfate (SLS/SLES)
- Clean your teeth with a toothpaste free from antimicrobials (synthetic or natural). For gentle whitening, use a baking soda tooth powder, like Eco-Dent Extra Brite that’s low-abrasive and also fluoride-free, or Revitin, a prebiotic toothpaste created by Dr. Curatola. Or use both — using Dr. Curatola’s Revitin after you brush with the toothpaste or powder.
- To add a wonderful diversity of microbes to your mouth, rinse or gargle with a sugar-free probiotic beverage as a mouthwash, like Body Ecology’s InnergyBiotic or CocoBiotic. You can also gargle with green tea — shown to target harmful oral bacteria.6
You can even make your own remineralizing DIY tooth powder by hand-mixing these ingredients in a glass jar:
- ¼ cup bentonite clay
- 3 tbsp. calcium carbonate powder
- 2 tbsp. dried mint leaf
- 1 tbsp. xylitol powder
- 1-3 drops essential oils, like the ones mentioned above
- 1-2 drops manuka honey
- 1-2 drops propolis extract
Notes for the DIY tooth powder: Bentonite clay is known for its ability to pull toxins, bacteria, and other impurities; calcium carbonate plays a pivotal part in remineralizing, strengthening bones and also teeth; lemon or tangerine oil and xylitol work together to add flavor and natural sweetness.7,8
Just a few months of using a remineralizing DIY tooth powder can help fortify teeth to prevent decay and could improve whiteness.
If you find that your current toothpaste, floss, and mouthwash are riddled with chemicals that are sabotaging your oral microbiome, use a DIY tooth powder, or take a run to the store, literally. Exercise is not only a great stress-buster; it’s great for your teeth.
3. Stay active.
Exercise is well-known for supporting a healthy circulatory system, and this is vital for healthy gums and teeth. Physical activity also promotes overall immune competence, meaning your mouth has an easier time keeping pathogens at bay.
According to Dr. Curatola:
- Exercise may even help with the flow of something called dentinal tubular fluid.
- This is a nourishing fluid that flows through the inside of teeth to the outside enamel and into the mouth, helping to keep teeth healthy and remove waste products.
- Good fluid flow can also help flush out pathogens that try to invade dental pulp.9
Finally, exercise is good for stress relief, which can help stop you from grinding your teeth, keep your salivary glands happy, and prevent strain of the temporomandibular joint. Find your balance with some yoga, meditation, or mindfulness.
Then don’t forget to add those beneficial bacteria to keep your gut and, thus, your oral microbiome in balance: Put a few spoonfuls of fermented veggies on your lunch and dinner plate. Try a rewarding, refreshing glass of home-cultured kefir (milk or young coconut). Or do a 3-ounce “shot” of CocoBiotic or InnergyBiotic.
Dr. Curatola graduated from the New York University College of Dentistry and, subsequently, Harvard Medical School’s program in Complementary and Alternative Medicine. He is an adjunct clinical associate professor in NYU’s Department of Cariology and Comprehensive Care and has spent decades studying the oral microbiome and its effects on health.
- 1. Deo, P. N., & Deshmukh, R. (2019). Oral microbiome: Unveiling the fundamentals. Journal of oral and maxillofacial pathology : JOMFP, 23(1), 122–128. https://doi.org/10.4103/jomfp.JOMFP_304_18.
- 2. Strauss, S. M., Russell, S., Wheeler, A., Norman, R., Borrell, L. N., & Rindskopf, D. (2010). The dental office visit as a potential opportunity for diabetes screening: an analysis using NHANES 2003-2004 data. Journal of public health dentistry, 70(2), 156–162. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-7325.2009.00157.x.
- 3. Eke, P. I., Thornton-Evans, G. O., Wei, L., Borgnakke, W. S., Dye, B. A., & Genco, R. J. (2018). Periodontitis in US Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009-2014. Journal of the American Dental Association (1939), 149(7), 576–588.e6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adaj.2018.04.023.
- 4. Dickson RP, Erb-Downward JR, Freeman CM, McCloskey L, Falkowski NR, Huffnagle GB, Curtis JL. 2017. Bacterial topography of the healthy human lower respiratory tract. mBio 8:e02287-16. https:// doi.org/10.1128/mBio.02287-16.
- 5. Schaudinn, C., Gorur, A., Keller, D., Sedghizadeh, P. P., & Costerton, J. W. (2009). Periodontitis: an archetypical biofilm disease. Journal of the American Dental Association (1939), 140(8), 978–986. https://doi.org/10.14219/jada.archive.2009.0307.
- 6. Rassameemasmaung S, Phusudsawang P, Sangalungkarn V. Effect of green tea mouthwash on oral malodor. ISRN Prev Med. 2012;2013:975148. Published 2012 Dec 2. doi:10.5402/2013/975148.
- 7. Moosavi M. Bentonite Clay as a Natural Remedy: A Brief Review. Iran J Public Health. 2017;46(9):1176-1183.
- 8. Huang Y, Duan Y, Qian Y, et al. Remineralization efficacy of a toothpaste containing 8% arginine and calcium carbonate on enamel surface. Am J Dent. 2013;26(5):291-297.
- 9. Love, R. M., & Jenkinson, H. F. (2002). Invasion of dentinal tubules by oral bacteria. Critical reviews in oral biology and medicine: an official publication of the American Association of Oral Biologists, 13(2), 171–183. https://doi.org/10.1177/154411130201300207.