The health of our mouth and the health of our body are fundamentally connected. As rates of chronic disease such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s have increased over the last century, so also has the incidences of tooth decay, gum disease and dental problems in general.
Aboriginals still living a traditional lifestyle in Australia do not get dental disease, and neither do they suffer the chronic degenerative diseases until they adopt a western diet, after which they have the same disease rates as everyone else. Fossil records show us that the ancient Egyptians rarely suffered from dental disease and nearly all of them had perfectly straight teeth. Also, for all the primitiveness of our Mesolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors, fossil records show us that cavities and gum disease were a rarity (as were toothbrushes)!
So what happened?
Following the Industrial Revolution our diet changed dramatically from seasonal, unprocessed foods, to one that became based on refined flour, sugar and vegetable oil. Now around half of all foods we buy in the UK are considered ultra-processed foods1, which have been stripped of nutrients and fibre but which satisfy our instinct for sweet, energy-rich foods. Research now undeniably links our modern diet – high in processed foods – as a major contributor to the failing health of our mouths and bodies.
Quote: ‘Chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, now accounts for around 90% of all deaths each year in the UK.’
The modern diet also differs to traditional diets in that it is much lower in the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K and the mineral magnesium – all of which are vital for enabling calcium to build strong teeth and bones. A deficiency in these can contribute to poor bone growth and weak teeth that are more prone to decay. Therefore, something as simple as a vitamin A, D or K deficiency can explain why some people are susceptible to increased dental disease despite rigorous dental hygiene and others seem to sail through life never flossing and never having a cavity. 2
Refined carbohydrates and sugar – a shared love
Now throw into the picture our love for sugar and refined carbohydrates (basically anything made from white flour). We are not the only ones who love them though, they are an ideal food source for certain bacteria in our mouths. This collection of microbes in our mouths is known as the oral microbiome and it’s important to note that the key here is balance. Dental disease arises when the balance favours certain bacteria3.
When humans transitioned from hunter-gatherers to farmers our consumption of carbohydrate rich grains increased dramatically, and evolutionary genetics shows us that the main disease-causing bacteria in our mouths – streptococcus mutans – also increased at this time4. The progression of oral disease then got another boost around the time of the Industrial Revolution when refined sugar became widely available.
The mouth–gut–health connection
Our oral and gut microbiome are intricately connected, so a problem in one equals a problem in the other. Think of this: every time you swallow saliva you are literally swallowing thousands of bacteria that end up in your gut.
The numbers clearly show the link between chronic disease and the health of our mouths. Those with dental disease under 65 are at a 19% increased risk of a heart attack and the over 65’s have a 44% increased risk!
In the case of type 2 diabetics, there is a 3.2 times greater risk of death in those who also have dental disease. Treating the dental disease in diabetics results in substantially improved blood sugar control and a reduction in symptoms.5
Quote: ‘All disease begins in the gut.’ – Hippocrates
Science still has some way to explaining exactly how our microbiome increases or decreases our chance of disease. But one way is certainly through our immune system.
Our immune system relies on the gut microbes to give information about anything that may be harmful to us – and then act accordingly. Simply put, if there are too many ‘bad’ bacteria the immune system will be over-stimulated and go into overdrive. Did you know that around 70% of our immune cells are in our gut?!
Diet is the most effective way we can alter the health of our microbiome and therefore eating a healthy diet can change the health of not only our mouth, but also our entire body.
Dietary tips for dental and whole-body health
Foods to avoid
These foods help the ‘bad’ bacteria in our microbiome and can contribute to inflammation and disease:
- Added sugars (commonly listed as glucose, sucrose, malt syrup, high fructose corn syrup and many more!)
- Refined carbohydrates (anything made with white flour e.g bread, pasta, biscuits, pastry and donuts)
- Inflammation-promoting vegetable oils such as corn, soyabean, canola and sunflower oils (also avoid processed trans and hydrogenated fats).
Foods to include
These foods help the ‘good’ bacteria in our microbiome and can help increase the strength of our bones and teeth:
- Any unprocessed foods that do not come in a packet or have an ingredients label
- Fruits (in moderation) and vegetables (in abundance) are high in fibre and help to feed the ‘good bacteria’ in our mouths.
- Healthy fats and oils such as butter, grass fed meat, nuts, olive oil, oily fish, avocados and coconut oil.
- Foods rich in the mineral magnesium are leafy greens, nuts and seeds and seafood.
- Fermented foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut and kimchi contain live bacteria that may help our microbiome flourish.
- Lin, S. (2018) The Dental Diet. 1st Carlsbad, California: Hay House Inc.
- Woelber, J. P., Bremer, K., Vach, K., König, D., Hellwig, E., Ratka-Krüger, P., Al-Ahmad, A., Tennert, C. (2016). An oral health optimized diet can reduce gingival and periodontal inflammation in humans – a randomized controlled pilot study. BMC oral health, 17(1), 28.
- Moye, Z. D., Zeng, L., & Burne, R. A. (2014). Fueling the caries process: carbohydrate metabolism and gene regulation by Streptococcus mutans. Journal of oral microbiology, 6, 10.3402/jom.v6.24878. doi:10.3402/jom.v6.24878
- (2017). Prevalence of periodontal disease, its association with systemic diseases and prevention. International journal of health sciences, 11(2), 72-80.