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illustration showing human mouth and cartoon bacteria

4 fascinating things scientists know about the billions of bacteria in your mouth

There’s a lot of hype about the secrets of the microbiome, but did you know there’s a whole universe of good and bad bacteria that only inhabit your mouth? For National Dental Hygiene Month, we spoke to researchers who are investigating how this small ecosystem can have a big impact on your overall health.

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You’ve probably seen a lot of mention in the news as of late about the microbiome, the ecosystem of microorganisms in your body that can play a part in your well-being.

Your gut microbiome, for example, not only aids in digestion, but scientists believe it could help unlock some of the mysteries of obesity. And research being conducted on the skin microbiome has the potential to help inform how we can combat acne, eczema and more.

At Johnson & Johnson, scientists focused on advancing dental health are also tracking the microbiome in your mouth.

In a study just published in the Journal of the American Dental Association, its researchers found that for people with dentinal sensitivity (pain when your teeth are exposed to stimuli like cold air), using a mouthrinse that contains the ingredient potassium oxalate, such as Listerine® Sensitivity Zero Alcohol Mouthrinse, helped reduce the problem compared to using a placebo rinse.

Here’s how the 700 different species of bacteria in your mouth (you heard right!) may not only impact your health—but could also someday change the way we think about dental care altogether.


There Are Billions of Bacteria in Your Mouth … and They Begin Colonizing at Birth

The oral microbiome refers to all the bacteria, and their genes, that live in your mouth, explains Purnima Kumar, Ph.D., a professor of periodontology at Ohio State University. While it’s a separate microbiome from others in the body, such as in the gut, each of these ecosystems impact one another in ways we are really only beginning to understand.

“Every time you drink a glass of water, you swallow millions of bacteria,” Kumar says. “And every time you eat food or kiss a partner, different bacteria comes into your mouth. Yet not all of these visitors stick around—only some of them stay and colonize.”

While scientists are still investigating all the mechanisms involved in the making of the oral microbiome—and why certain guests decide never to leave—we do know that it begins establishing almost at birth. And it continues to evolve depending on many variables, such as when your first and second sets of teeth come in.

One big factor that scientists do know influences the makeup of your oral microbiome: your mother’s oral health. If your mom had gum disease or smoked while pregnant, explains Kumar, you’re likely to be born with more pathogens in your mouth, predisposing you to cavities and gum disease later in life.


Diet, Poor Oral Care and Health Issues Can Impact Your Mouth Microbiome

There are more than 700 different species of bacteria that can be found in the mouth, explains Tara Fourre, Principal Scientist, Global Oral Care and Wound Care Upstream Innovation, Johnson & Johnson Consumer, Microbiology.

In the ecosystem of the oral microbiome, certain healthy bacteria work to protect your mouth (some, for example, specifically help limit tooth decay). There’s also harmful bacteria that are known to cause cavities and disease. Together, they form a community called biofilm, probably better known to you as dental plaque—or that slimy feeling you may have on your teeth when you wake up in the morning.

Johnson & Johnson is creating biofilms in the lab, using the donated saliva of employees, to replicate all the various organisms making up the oral microbiome. The more we know about them, the better we can create products to address bad bacteria in the mouth.
Tara Fourre

When the balance between these bacteria shift because of a poor diet, poor oral hygiene and other health issues, it can cause the harmful bacteria to take over. Left unchecked, this imbalance can lead to bad breath, cavities, gum disease and even tooth loss.

microbiome - purple biofilm

Oral biofilms—aka plaque—grown in the Johnson & Johnson labs

Today, researchers are working to understand how these “healthy and harmful bacteria communicate with and influence each other,” explains Erin Zaleski, Scientist, Global Oral Care and Wound Care Innovation, Johnson & Johnson Consumer.

One thing Zaleski’s team has already discovered: The use of Listerine® mouthwash in a laboratory setting can promote a favorable distribution of healthy bacteria in the mouth.

They’re also trying to reveal the mysteries of less understood bacteria in the mouth.

“One way Johnson & Johnson is doing this is by creating biofilms in the lab, using the donated saliva of employees, to replicate all the various organisms making up the oral microbiome,” Fourre says. “The more we know about them, the better we can create products to address bad bacteria in the mouth.”


Your Oral Health Can Affect the Rest of Your Body

It’s important to understand that, from a health perspective, your mouth is the gateway to the rest of you.

“So if pathogens overgrow in your mouth, they can transfer to your blood vessels and then onto distant parts of your body,” Kumar explains.

This is how the process works: As the inflammation from pathogens or periodontal disease damages the tiny blood vessels in your gums, oral bacteria are allowed to enter your bloodstream. Although the body has many systems in place to manage these bugs, some harmful species have been associated with a number of diseases and conditions as they reach various organs, such as diabetes, heart disease, adverse pregnancy outcomes, Alzheimer’s disease and even depression (though we don’t have definitive evidence that oral bacteria directly causes these associated disease states).

On the flip side, other health problems happening in the body can influence oral health as well. People with diabetes, for example, are more likely to have periodontal disease than people without it, likely because they’re more susceptible to contracting infections overall, according to the American Academy of Periodontology.


There Are Simple Steps You Can Take to Nurture a Healthy Microbiome

As research continues to evolve, scientists are finding new, targeted methods for maximizing the health of the microbiome in your mouth.

For example, certain foods or probiotics may make a difference. One potential winner: black raspberries. The fruit seems to contain phytochemicals that are effective in reducing chronic inflammation and may help inhibit the early stages of oral cancer development.

Practicing good dental care is also critical to keeping your oral ecosystem healthy, along with preventing cavities and gum disease. Twice daily brushing, as well as flossing once a day, is a good start. And adding in an antimicrobial mouthwash like Listerine helps further reduce the risk of plaque and gingivitis.

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