The Oral Microbiome: Tiny Organisms with a Huge Impact on Health

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Have you heard of the gut microbiome? This diverse community teeming with trillions of bacteria, fungi and other tiny organisms lives in the body’s intestines. Even if you’re familiar with the gut microbiome, you might be less so with the oral microbiome, another major community of microorganisms. This one lives in our mouths.

The mouth’s hard teeth and soft gums provide over 1,000 species of bacteria with a complex habitat, where they perform a variety of vital functions in the body. Similar to the gut, there is a lot of diversity in the types of bacteria found in the oral microbiome. But, while we all share common microbes, we also have a wide variety of additional microorganisms that are unique to each of us. Even within our own mouths, different pockets of mucus and teeth can contain microbial communities that may not be found just one tooth away. The composition of the oral microbiome is also constantly changing and can be affected by numerous factors, including age, smoking, disease and the food we eat.

These tiny organisms in the mouth play a powerful role in overall health. A diverse and flourishing microbiome can protect the oral cavity from disease by providing foundations for enamel, filtering out unwanted bacteria from food and maintaining a constant pH level in the mouth. When the oral microbiome is off balance or unhealthy, however, it can lead to the development of inflammation and disease.

The impact of these microbes doesn’t stop in the mouth. Dysfunction in the oral microbiome can affect the whole body and may lead to increased body-wide inflammation and stress on the cardiovascular system. In fact, previous research has linked multiple bacterial species in the oral microbiome to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.

One specific pathway in the oral microbiome plays a pivotal role in producing usable nitric oxide from the foods we eat. Nitric oxide is a molecule that regulates blood flow and is a power player in maintaining heart and blood vessel health. People who have more of the bacteria that help with production of nitric oxide have been found to have lower blood pressure and better glucose regulation.

There is still more research that needs to be done on the relationship between the oral microbiome and heart health, but taking care of your teeth and gums can potentially lower your risk for both oral and cardiovascular diseases. Health care practitioners recommend brushing with a plaque-fighting toothpaste, limiting how much sugar and acidic foods we eat and making regular visits to the dentist office to keep our village of 1,000 bacteria species happy.

Macy Stahl is a master’s student in kinesiology and exercise physiology at the University of Virginia. She has a strong passion for the role that exercise plays in disease management and prevention. Stahl’s research focuses on exercise interventions in people with cardiovascular disease.

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