What is so important about our mouth?
We frequently underestimate the role that our mouth plays in our overall health. We tend to think of it purely as a receptacle for our food that allows us to satisfy our appetite. It is seen as useful in helping us chew our food into smaller particles that allows us to satiate our hunger. No more – no less. But in fact our mouth is an important and intrinsic part of our whole digestive system. So lets look at it and see why I give it such focussed attention in a patient’s care.
Did you know that your digestion starts the moment you put food in your mouth. That very instant that you recognise a taste on your tongue your body has already set in motion a serious of chemical and nervous system reactions that will allow you to taste, break down, absorb, assimilate and then make that food into something else – you!!! Even your tongue is an intricate design that let us single out individual flavours such as sweet, bitter, sour salty. Did you know you have up to 10,000 taste buds on your tongue and their lifespan is about 10 days? We appear to have forgotten the connection between food and health. Every single mouthful of food you eat ultimately becomes either a new cell in your body or a part of the process that gives you energy, or part of the millions of chemical reactions that happen every second that allows you to live. Hippocrates the father of modern day medicine said – Let food be your medicine – let medicine be your food – and he meant it literally.
So back to the mouth. How important is it that that very early stage in your digestive process is a healthy one.
The mouth is made up of very special cells that result in a tissue called mucous membrane. Mucous membrane is the highest absorbable tissue in the body – it is found in moist, inner linings of the body such as the mouth, nose, lungs, urogenital tracts and stomach. This membrane in the body is roughly about 400 square meters in the average adult human, (wheras skin is roughly 2 square meters) and is the primary barrier between the external world and the internal world. It contains key elements of the immune system and has a critical link with our microbiome.
So now we know our mouth has this amazing absorbable tissue. What does that mean for us?
It means that it is an area that is even more important that we need to ensure is healthy. If our cheeks, and gums are part of the most absorbable tissue it means that we need to be careful that what is being hosted in that cavity is protective and healthy, not infected and unhealthy.
Imagine if infection were to live in or on that tissue? Imagine if inflammation were to live in or on that tissue? What research is showing is that in fact infection and inflammation can very much be part of this picture.
Another important fact is that absorption through the oral cavity bypasses the digestive tract and travels directly into the blood stream. We know this because some lifesaving mainstream drugs are sprayed directly into the mouth as they are absorbed almost instantly into the blood stream. For example the angina drug nitroglycerin is delivered this way and can take effect within 1 minute of being used. I use this route of delivery for my patients having panic attacks. I ask them the spray a neat solution of a mixture of herbal medicine directly into their mouth and ask them to hold it there. It works almost every time. So it’s a fast acting conduit directly into our cardiovascular system.
So we have a cavity that is exquisitely sensitive, part of our immune system, part of our ability to absorb nutrients, covers 400 square metres of our body and has a fast, direct route (within 1 minute) of our bloodstream. That’s pretty important!
Most of you will already have heard about the microbiome – the billions of bacteria that live with us and that we depend on for many processes in our body as well as good health. We live in a wonderful co-dependent harmony with these bacteria and when we feed them and treat them well they give us lovely gifts back, like some vitamins, neurotransmitters, hormones and they protect us from infection. They also live in our mouth and just like the gut, are responsible for all these functions.
If you think of the mouth and the opportunity for infection, its huge. It’s a warm moist area with lots of tiny spaces in which bacteria could hide – and it does hide. That is why it is critical that we brush our teeth regularly, that we floss regularly and perhaps use dental sticks to make sure we give the healthy bacteria a chance to flourish and that we keep on top of the unhealthy bacteria. Many of the oral mouthwashes that we use can actually be detrimental to oral health as they clear out the good bacteria as well as the bad bacteria.
What we eat plays an important part in what we allow to grow orally. We know that certain types of unhealthy bacteria favour certain types of food. We know that there are certain foods and lifestyles that encourage inflammation. There is already research linking specific sugary foods to increased risk of tooth decay and dental cavities (1) but there is growing research between certain types of oral bacteria such a P gingivalis and Alzheimers disease (2) as well as links between oral inflammation and cardiovascular disease (3) A study done in 2018 also showed that
“persistent infection is oral infection, mainly periodontitis, where a wide array of causal organisms have been implied to systemic infections such as cardio vascular disease, diabetes mellitus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimers disease” (4)
So just as we know that we need to treat our bowel with great care and respect, so too do we need to take care of our mouth.
Make sure that if we use a mouthwash, that we follow it with an oral probiotic specific for the mouth
Using specific herbal anti-infective mixes can target the more troublesome bacteria and leae the healthy bacteria intact
Make sure we brush regularly
Flossing is critical in getting to those hard to reach parts
Dental sticks can be very helpful in accessing pockets in the gum tissue
Keep hydrated. One of the main roles of mucous membrane is to keep hydration intact.
(2) Shoemarker DK andAllen SJ. “The Microbiome and Disease: Reviewing theLinks between the OralMicrobiome, Aging,and Alzheimer’s Disease”. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 43.3(2015) 725-738.
(4) SudhakaraP., et al. “Oral Dysbiotic Communities and Their Implications in SystemicDiseases”. Dentistry Journal 6 (2018): 10.