Most bacteria are good for you! The average mouth is teeming with around 296 different types of bacteria, officially known as the ‘oral microbiome.’ These bacteria can be sub divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria, the balance of which has important health implications.
For example, an overgrowth of bad bacteria (known as dysbiosis) in the mouth causes dental problems such as tooth decay and gum disease. But this effect on our health doesn’t stop at the mouth. These bad bacteria have been shown to have a direct influence on our gut bacteria and increase our risk of diseases such as heart attacks, stroke, some cancers, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and respiratory tract infections. Consider that the majority of our immune system is actually in the gut and is directly affected by the bacterial balance of good to bad bacteria, and it starts to make sense.
Just because these bacteria are small, it does not mean they are insignificant! Cell for cell, our microbiome outnumbers our own body cells by a whopping 10 to 1! Without our microbiome we would not be able to survive. It is responsible for essential functions such as the absorption and production of nutrients, regulation of metabolism and fat storage (experiments have been done on mice to make them obese only through changing their gut bacteria), proper functioning of the immune system and even the production of some hormones!
Over the last few decades, chronic disease rates have risen uncontrollably and overtaken infectious disease as the biggest killer. One explanation for this is a change in our microbiome that makes us more susceptible to chronic disease, autoimmune problems and allergies. The hygiene hypothesis supports the idea that altered environmental and lifestyle factors have restricted our exposure to microbes as children and thereby deprived our developing microbiome of the necessary ‘ingredients’ for optimal health.
So, before complete despair sets in, what can we do to promote a healthy microbiome?
- Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables, much of the fibre content acts as fuel for the good bacteria.
- Eat food products that contain good bacteria such as ‘live’ yoghurt, sauerkraut or kefir.
- Unpasteurised apple cider vinegar contains good bacteria – use it as a salad dressing or drink a teaspoon in some water.
- Try and include prebiotic foods in your diet such as avocado, raw garlic, leeks, chives, onions, peas and potato skins, which all serve to feed the good bacteria in our guts.
- Probiotic supplements contain ‘good’ bacteria and have been shown to have the ability to increase the good bacteria in the gut.
And what should we try to avoid or minimise?
- A diet high in processed foods and sugars. Those bad bacteria have a party when we eat refined carbohydrates and sweet things!
- Unnecessary use of antibiotics and antibacterial products – these kill bacteria indiscriminately, good and bad. If you do take a course of antibiotics, it’s a good idea to take a probiotic supplement on completion.
- Poor oral hygiene gives bad bacteria an easy environment in which to thrive.
In the future, the study of the microbiome may well provide us with new ways of assessing disease risk and diagnosis. It may even offer us a way to prevent illnesses before they happen. We cannot change our genes, but we can change our microbiome. So, let’s try to take the time to consider our microscopic residents, the good and the bad, which comprise such a key part of our both our oral health and general well-being. Now is the time to shift from the traditional focus of the elimination of all bacteria, to one that works with the microbiome and recognises it for the superorganism it is.