Your immune system is a wondrous thing, protecting against bacteria, viruses, fungi, and toxins that can make you sick. This complex system consisting of organs, cells, and proteins works together to maintain your health and is supported by an important first line of defense – your oral mucosal cells.
These cells live in your mouth and are part of an intricate series of barriers and defenses to help prevent pathogens from invading your body. They also produce antimicrobial proteins that signal your immune system if it needs to step up and help fight these pathogens.
Here, we explain the connection between oral health and your immune system, and how your dental hygiene regime helps support a healthier immune response.
Oral Microbiome And How It’s Connected To Your Immune System
This important connection begins in your oral cavity where millions of microbial species create what is called your oral “microbiome”. There are eight different “colonies” of bacteria living on the surfaces of your mouth, including your teeth, tongue, cheeks, and gums. These colonies work together to create an ecosystem that supports its own colony of bacterial flora.
Although hearing the word bacterial might be alarming, your oral microbiome has good, healthy bacteria that help combat the unhealthy bacteria in your oral cavity. You need a good balance of healthy bacteria to overcome the species that cause diseases. This is where your oral mucosa or saliva comes in. It continuously refreshes your healthy microorganisms, providing important species like cytokines and antimicrobial proteins that help trigger a healthy immune response. This is an important stage of defending against disease-causing pathogenic flora.
Imbalance Between Good And Bad Flora
Having too much bad bacterial flora in your oral cavity disrupts your tissue’s protective barriers. If these barriers are outnumbered by the bad bacteria, they can’t keep up with the good bacterial production. When your microbiome is balanced however, all the signals are triggered quickly, ensuring you can effectively manage oral immunity. A healthy oral microbiome also builds a stronger oral mucosa barrier, contributing to the health of your entire immune system.
Oral Health And Your Immune System
Gingivitis and periodontal disease are inflammatory diseases of the mouth caused by an overabundance of unhealthy bacteria. Because inflammation triggers your immune system, your reaction to oral inflammatory bacteria takes attention away from the rest of your body. As a result, it can’t focus on other threats. If you suffer from gum disease, there’s a good chance you will be more prone to infections such as colds and flu as your immune system is occupied, focused on fighting the inflammation in your mouth.
Adding to the risk, underlying conditions also put a strain on your immune system, which means when your body is sending signals to help fight your oral inflammation, you can experience worsening symptoms that aggravate any pre-existing, underlying conditions you may have.
Oral Hygiene And Your Immune System
That brings us to oral hygiene. As mentioned, you have eight diverse biofilms in your oral cavity. Each responds differently to bacteria. The biofilms on your teeth, for example, are more durable than the ones on your mucosa because your saliva continuously exfoliates the mucous. This helps reduce microbial formations.
However, with your teeth, their response is directly impacted by your diet, oral hygiene, and changing oxygen conditions. These factors help increase the microorganism density of the biofilm, including plaque. As plaque density increases, so too does the risk of oral cavity diseases as well as systemic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, bacterial pneumonia, and diabetes mellitus.
How Is Your Immune System Impacted By Your Oral Health?
Plaque is a biofilm that causes dental caries and gum disease. When plaque builds up between your teeth and gums, it is difficult to reach. The longer the biofilm sits undisturbed, the more chance that it will lead to inflammation and infections. Infections are then aggravated by the production of infected gingival crevice fluid that nurtures these germs with proteins, nutrients, and glycoproteins. These germs damage soft and hard tissues but can also disrupt your immune system.
As a result, your ability to fight disease and other infections is compromised. This can lead to serious illness, including heart disease, if plaque enters your bloodstream. Periodontal plaque can also increase the risk of diabetes, as prolonged exposure to periodontal bacteria promotes glucose intolerance and insulin resistance. Finally, oral bacteria can enter your lungs, causing diseases such as COPD, pneumonia, respiratory infections, etc. The lungs are also a common pathway for bacteria to spread from the oral cavity into the bloodstream.
How To Prevent Poor Oral Health From Impacting The Immune System
Your best defense against poor oral health impacting your immune system is to improve the health of your oral cavity and microbiome. Some tips to help promote oral health include:
Oral hygiene best practices: Brush your teeth twice a day and floss to maintain a healthy microbiome, but take care to avoid killing good bacteria by over-brushing. Ask your dentist about the best toothpaste and mouthwash to use, as detergent-based toothpastes and mouthwashes contain alcohol that disrupts your oral microbiome balance.
Make healthier food choices: A nutrient-dense diet includes foods like fresh greens, fruits and vegetables, organic eggs, meats and poultry, nuts and seeds, seafood, etc. You can also improve oral microbiome health by eating foods containing probiotics, such as yogurt. Probiotics also help reduce gum inflammation and keep bad bacteria at bay. You’ll also help produce more saliva, which assists with enamel remineralization. If you can’t eat yogurt, take a probiotic supplement. Avoiding unhealthy foods containing sugar and refined carbohydrates, as well as processed, packaged, or fast foods, is just as important as choosing healthy foods. These unhealthy choices will create an environment where bacteria thrive.
Keep your mouth moist: If you don’t produce enough saliva, your mouth becomes too acidic, creating an unhealthy oral ecosystem. If you have a dry mouth, speak to your dentist to ask for ways to improve saliva production. Drink water to flush out the acids, and enjoy regular exercise to boost circulation. Exercise helps detoxify your lymphatic system and reduces inflammation-causing stress.
See your dentist twice a year: Regular dental checkups ensure your dentist can monitor your microbiome and oral health. They’ll assess your oral health and look for signs of issues such as inflamed gums, dry mouth, and increased plaque buildup. They can take a proactive approach to help improve your oral health and microbiome with tips for an improved dental care regime. They will also provide professional cleaning to remove plaque that can compromise your oral immune defenses.