It’s hard to remember that the mouth isn’t just an organ, it’s also an environment where different species live, compete, and either thrive or fail. And sometimes the oral ecosystem (sometimes described as a microbiome) can be strongly influenced by other factors. Holistic dentistry works to understand and utilize these factors to encourage optimal oral health.
When you brush your teeth or change your diet, you’re working to influence your oral ecosystem. You are trying to work against damaging organisms while favoring those that have healthier interactions with you. But other things can influence your oral ecosystem as well, including the presence of toxins in the environment. A new study shows that exposure to toxic pesticides can have a significant impact on the oral ecosystem.
Farmworkers Experience Long-Term Effects
To understand this effect, researchers compared farm workers and non-farm workers in Washington’s Yakima Valley, starting in 2005. They started out with cheek swabs to determine the distribution of oral bacteria and blood samples to look at the presence of the pesticide Azinphos-methyl.
Azinphos-methyl is an organophosphate insecticide. It works by inhibiting the action of neurotransmitters that activate certain muscles, but these neurotransmitters perform a wide range of functions in the body. It has been linked to reproductive problems and cancer. This pesticide is normally used on tree crops, such as apples–the type of crop workers in this study were working with.
Researchers found that the farm workers with the highest levels of pesticide in their blood had significantly modified oral bacteria. Seven different types of oral bacteria had disturbed populations in workers with exposure. These disturbances persisted through the winter, showing that the pesticide exposures had a long-term impact on the oral ecosystem.
Impacts on Oral Health
Although researchers have identified these changes in the oral ecosystem, they haven’t yet been able to link these changes to impacts on oral health. They note that interactions between us and the bacteria that live in and around our bodies are vital, but couldn’t point to specific changes in this population’s oral health. Typically, modifying the number and types of bacterial strains in the mouth lead to oral health problems.
Accounting for a Range of Influences
Promoting oral health depends on more than just brushing and flossing teeth or making regular dental checkups. It means being aware of how environmental factors can disturb your oral ecosystem, often for the worse, and trying to keep a healthy relationship with oral bacteria.