Probiotics are living microorganisms. You’ve probably heard them called “good bacteria,” in reference to your gut. Now, newer research indicates they might have benefits for your oral health as well.
Importance of Your Oral Microbiome
Like the rest of the body, your mouth is teeming with microorganisms that live on your tongue, palate, teeth and gums. The balance of bacteria in your mouth is one of the most diverse in your body, second only to your gut.
Because the mouth is the gateway into your body, maintaining an optimum microbiome balance is extremely important–but also incredibly tricky.
When harmful bacteria overgrow in your mouth, they can cause a variety of oral health issues. Gum disease, tooth decay and bad breath are the more notable results of bacteria overgrowth, but more serious conditions can also develop. Left unchecked, inflammation of the gums breeds more of the harmful bacteria and can lead to periodontal disease, which can result in tooth loss.
In some cases, the bad bacteria that form in your mouth can spread to other parts of your body and contribute to diabetes, auto-immune diseases, and even heart disease.
Harmful bacteria can grow as a result of poor dental hygiene, a weakened immune system due to underlying medical issues, dry mouth or genetics.
What Are Oral Probiotics?
The most common food associated with probiotics is yogurt. This is because the yogurt industry was the first to begin to mass market their products as containing live and active bacteria that support healthy gut function. In fact, while all yogurt contains some degree of probiotics, lots of other foods do too–including fortified foods and beverages or supplements.
While technically any probiotic you consume is taken orally, the term oral probiotic generally refers to a mouthwash or chewable tablets designed to act directly upon your mouth.
Some experts suggest that dietary probiotics that balance your gut can affect oral health as well. If you are interested in trying probiotics but don’t want to invest in pricier products designed specifically for oral care, it is easy to find foods and beverages that will supply your body with lots of healthy bacteria.
Dairy sources of probiotics include aged cheeses, kefir, buttermilk and yogurt. Non-dairy sources of probiotics include non-dairy yogurts, dill pickles, kimchi, kombucha, natto, sauerkraut and tempeh.
Oral probiotics are generally safe and free from side effects. However, immunocompromised people should avoid probiotics, as well as those undergoing treatment for cancer or HIV/AIDS.
Choosing the Right Oral Probiotics
Oral probiotics are sold as supplements, just like vitamins and herbs. You can find them over-the-counter at most drug stores and health-food stores. Also like most herbal supplements, the FDA doesn’t evaluate them for safety as they would with most other drugs, so it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor and dentist before you begin using them.
In general, the more the better when it comes to the number of bacterial colonies. Colony Forming Units (CFUs) will tell you how much bacteria you are getting in each dose. Also look for names such as Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium or Saccharomyces boulardii, which are some of the most researched probiotics.
The best oral probiotics will be high-quality and often higher in price. It’s wise to do some research on reputable brands before you head to the store, and be sure to check out reviews.
Potential Benefits of Oral Probiotics
The FDA has not approved probiotics to treat any medical condition. So while there is no guarantee that probiotics will improve your dental health, research and anecdotal evidence indicate that some people benefit from their use. This, of course, must be in cooperation with a dental professional and the employment of excellent dental hygiene practices.
Some of the issues probiotics might be able to improve include plaque buildup, gingivitis, halitosis, candida overgrowth, heart disease, cancer prevention, and Alzheimer’s Disease.
There are many types of bacteria found in the mouth, but one that is known as a prime cavity causer is the Streptococcus mutans. These bad microbes convert sugars into lactic acid, which erodes enamel and damages teeth. A 2016 study published in the American Society For Microbiology found that a good strain of bacteria, called A12, works to neutralize that acidity, which could have potential benefits for your teeth.
The probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri has been shown to reduce gum swelling and bleeding. Studies suggest that these bacteria outcompete plaque-forming and inflammatory microbes. High-quality oral probiotics usually contain this strain, which might help prevent gum disease or even reverse it.
Some studies suggest that oral probiotics are even more effective than antibacterial mouthwash at fighting halitosis (bad breath). An antibacterial mouthwash will kill the bacteria that cause bad breath, but it will also kill the good bacteria that is necessary for a healthy oral microbiome. It seems that oral probiotics might be able to restore balance and improve breath by combating harmful bacteria without inadvertently diminishing the good.
Candida is a fungus that naturally lives in your mouth. However, an imbalanced oral microbiome can lead to overgrowth and may cause a condition known as oral thrush. Symptoms can include white spots on the tongue, a lingering bad taste in your mouth, and dry and cracked lips. The food sources for this fungus are sugars and carbs, so making lifestyle changes can help prevent oral thrush outbreaks. In addition to a modified diet, oral probiotics can overcrowd the candida and reduce or eliminate their effects.
Multiple strains of oral bacteria have been found in heart valves and plaques of heart disease patients. Oral bacteria have the potential to spread and enter the cardiovascular system. But recent research suggests that regular use of oral probiotics can overcrowd these life-threatening bacteria and make them less likely to spread (in connection with other heart-healthy measures).
Development of Some Cancers
Research suggests that some pathogens occurring within the microbiome can mark the risk of certain cancers, especially oral cancers. It is possible that oral probiotics could be used, in conjunction with other treatments, to counteract the presence of cancer-causing microbes.
Researchers have found an association between Alzheimer’s disease and gum disease, meaning that there are often patients who exhibit symptoms of both conditions. Treating gum disease is a primary objective when treating Alzheimer’s disease, as it has been found to exacerbate cognitive decline. This could mean that preventing gum disease could aid in the prevention of Alzheimer’s as well.
No matter your age, fostering a healthy microbiome in your mouth can improve your oral health. Schedule a free consultation today with one of our board-certified orthodontists to get the smile you deserve.