Many of our patients are concerned about the impact of their actions on the local ecosystem, and that’s good. But there’s an even more local ecosystem you should be concerned about: the oral microbiome, which is a complex mini ecosystem, with a number of specifically defined niches inhabited by hundreds, even thousands of species (700 have been identified so far, with many more likely to be discovered), many of whom have yet to be identified.
Recently, a review of the structure of this microbiome shed light on this incredible diversity and how it can lead to healthy teeth or gum disease.
The Biogeography of Your Mouth
We know, it’s not usual to think of your mouth as having “geography,” but for bacteria it does. Consider that the height of an incisor could be the equivalent of almost 50 miles at the scale of a Streptococcus mutans, and you get a sense of how the mouth could be broken up into different “geographic” regions.
In fact, the Human Microbiome Project defines nine different regions in the mouth, including:
- Sub-gingival tooth (tooth below the gum line)
- Supra-gingival tooth (tooth above the gum line)
- Keratinized gums
- Lining of the cheeks
The organisms that live on these different regions are fairly specialized to the places where they live. They depend on many aspects of their environment, including the surface they live on. Bacteria that live on teeth can sometimes grow relatively slowly, because the teeth don’t change very fast. On the other hand, bacteria that live on the inside of your cheeks have to grow very quickly because the cells there grow, die, and are replaced more quickly, too.
With so many different species, it’s important for bacteria to learn to live with one another. In fact, researchers described dental plaque and the tongue as “among the densest microbial habitats on Earth.” To be able to live so densely, these bacteria form complex interrelationships that define what we describe as the microbiome.
These relationships are critical, because while we might target some of the “bad operators” that make our mouth unhealthy, an unhealthy state is usually caused by multiple species working together, including organisms that normally contribute to a healthy mouth, but under some circumstances can be opportunistic and therefore get “corrupted.”
Researchers not only surveyed the different types of organisms found in the different regions, but used complex photography to show the relationships that allow them to work together.
Researchers also noted that these complex relationships go beyond the mouth. For example, they said that in order to do swabs of plaque, they asked volunteers to not brush their teeth for 24 to 48 hours before the swab. However, they couldn’t use volunteers who had valvular heart disease, because letting bacteria build up like this could be dangerous to them.
We Help You Maintain a Healthy Microbiome
Most people, and many dentists, think that the solution to keeping your mouth healthy is simply trying to kill off as many “germs” as possible. After all, isn’t that what mouthwash commercials tell us?
But the truth is that the solution is both simpler and more complex than that. It’s simpler because you don’t have to try to kill off the germs in your mouth (which is pretty much impossible). But it’s more complex because you are trying to nurture a healthy ecosystem with a combination of diet, hygiene, visiting the dentist, and other care habits. And the combination’s not the same for everyone.
If you are looking for a dentist who can help you discover the best way to foster a healthy oral microbiome, please call (585) 244-3337 today for an appointment with a holistic dentist at Contemporary Dentistry in Rochester.