Ask the Dentist: Why having over 6 billion bacteria in your mouth is a good thing

Lucy Stock, Dentist at Gentle Dental Care, Belfast on why maintaining the balance between 'good' and 'bad' bacteria in our mouths and elsewhere is essential for healthy living

Ancient hunter-gathers had no need for dentists: they had almost no cavities
Ancient hunter-gathers had no need for dentists: they had almost no cavities

BACTERIA have been demonised over the years for causing disease. However, when bacteria are allowed to live in our bodies in a balanced way, they have incredible healing properties.

One of the first descriptions of bacteria appears in a letter written by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society of London in 1683 in which he describes "very many small living animals, which moved themselves very extravagantly" within the plaque on his teeth.

Attempting in vain to count them, he noted, "The number of these animals in the scurf of man's teeth, are so many that I believe they exceed the number of men in a kingdom."

He was definitely on the right track. There are over 700 different strains of bacteria in your mouth; a single mouth is home to more than 6 billion bacteria. But before you start putting on your rubber gloves and reaching for the bleach, in reality we need bacteria.

The bacterial community that lives in our bodies is called the microbiome. It's when there’s harmony in the microbiome, with good bacteria leading the way over harmful ones, that we remain healthy.

A 2013 study by the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA found that as our diets changed to mainly high-carbohydrate and processed foods, so did the composition of the bacteria in our mouths – and with it an associated increase in oral disease.

If I had lived in the early years of human history I would have been a very bored dentist, because research shows us that ancient hunter-gathers only had holes in, at most, 14 per cent of their teeth, and some had almost no cavities at all.

Then, roughly 10,000 years ago, humans learned to farm. Grain and other carbohydrates took over the plate, making the human mouth a haven for competitive bad bacteria to multiple leading to the destruction of tooth enamel. Ancient farmers had cavities in up to 48 per cent of their teeth.

The modern-day excessive consumption of acidic drinks, refined sugar, cigarette smoking, disinfectants and antibiotics has disrupted the balance of our finely tuned oral ecosystem and this has led to more disease.

So, if we can once again achieve a state of bacterial balance then we can promote health not only in our mouths but our entire bodies. This really means going back to basics, removing not only sugar and grains but also any processed or refined foods from your diet.

Eating a diet rich in fermented drinks or foods and organic foods will help your microbiome to once again achieve a state of balance and health.