When you think of gut health you probably think of your GI system: your stomach, your small intestine, and large intestine. You might think of how you experience gassiness, bloating, or cramping if you eat too much cheese or bread or both. Your GI system is more than just your stomach and intestines, it also includes solid organs like the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. But perhaps the most important organ of all is your mouth. Your mouth is the “gatekeeper” to the rest of your GI system. It is where the digestive process starts, beginning with the enzymes in your saliva that begin the breakdown process as you chew your food.
Why is it important to understand the relationship between your mouth and your gut? Well, because your oral health can affect your gut health which in turn affects your overall health and wellbeing. If one system goes askew then all the others are sure to follow. The type of food you eat and how you eat it can have either negative or positive effects on your mental health, your ability to manage your weight, how much sleep you get and the quality of that sleep, and a whole slew of other important bodily functions.
Let’s start at the beginning. Think of it this way, your GI tract is like a river and your mouth is the rivers source. Whatever resides in your mouth is going to travel down through the rest of your digestive tract down into your gut. The oral microbiome becomes the gut microbiome. So, can a problem in your mouth like gum disease (periodontitis if you want the medical term) and inflammation causing bacteria be causing issues and inflammatory symptoms in your gut? In short, yes.
In a 2019 study published by the Journal of Oral Microbiology, researchers at the University of Oslo found that bacteria from your mouth can move through your digestive system and down into your gut and change the microbiota and immune defenses that live there. Patients who suffer from chronic gum disease have a higher chance of also suffering from dysregulation in the gut due to the imbalance of good and bad bacteria that reside in their mouth.
If you don’t suffer from chronic gum disease don’t think that you’re off the hook. If you consume foods that are high in sugar, fried, or contain fast carbs (think potato chips and the like), you are only feeding the bad bacteria that are trying to outcompete the good bacteria in your mouth. This overgrowth of bad bacteria can impair gut barrier function which reduces your body’s ability to extract the full nutritional content of the food you eat. This can cause other health problems such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer, among other inflammatory diseases.
If you are freaking out, don’t! There are simple and actionable preventative measures you can take in order to ensure happy and healthy oral and gut microbiomes. Yes, brushing and flossing twice a day and attending your schedule dental appointments are critical, but your diet is your go-to tool. What you put in is what you’ll get out, so when you sit down to your next meal keep in mind that what is on your plate is going to feed trillions of tiny microbial lives that are trying to keep you healthy and feeling your best.
Here are some tips to help create healthy oral and gut microbiomes:
- Avoid processed foods as much as possible as they are often pumped full of preservatives and artificial additives which can feed the bad bacteria in your mouth and gut.
- Eat whole foods that haven’t been altered from their intended form. Think fresh fruits and veggies. Healthy fats that are rich in omegas like salmon, avocados, and nuts like pecans, almonds, walnuts, etc. If you like dried fruit (which is a great chewy candy alternative) make sure that it’s left as natural as possible or it’s sweetened with fruit juice instead of straight sugar.
- Say goodbye to sugar as much as possible. This includes all its forms like high-fructose corn syrup, table sugar, etc. And while maple syrup and honey are great alternatives, consume in moderation and try to purchase honey that is raw and unfiltered.
- Try eating seasonally. Check out a local farmers market or look in to getting a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Some farms have working CSA shares where you and the family can go out once or twice a week to the farm and get your hands in the dirt, learn a bit about farming, and see where your food comes from. Fresh is best.
- Consume pre- and probiotic foods like onions, garlic, kimchi, kefir, etc. You can also ask your doctor about a pre/probiotic supplement that you can take.
- Lastly, chew your food! This is the beginning of the system and its important to slow down, take your time, and allow your body to come out of fight or flight mode so that the good bacteria in your mouth have a chance to perform their essential roll of kick-starting the digestive process.
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In good health,