Do you know how much bacteria is in the human mouth? Estimates vary between 500 to 700 different species of bacteria, and between 6 million and 20 million microbes of bacteria in the mouth at any given time! Those billions of bacteria adhere to each other and to surfaces within the mouth – teeth, gums, inner cheeks, tongue, and form a complex, slimy, sticky substance called biofilm.
Dental biofilm can actually aid oral health. Besides containing hundreds of varieties of both “good” and “bad” bacteria, dental biofilm can also contain saliva – which provides necessary hydration and electrolytes (like calcium, fluoride and phosphorus) to the mouth, which are essential for good oral health and strong teeth (via enamel remineralization). Saliva also contains enzymes and antimicrobial compounds that are incredibly important for digestion and disease-fighting.
But when allowed to build unchecked, biofilm thickens and becomes yellowish and visible to the naked eye – called dental plaque. Plaque is overladen with bacteria, which produces acids that attack tooth enamel and irritates the gums, potentially causing cavities and early stages of gum disease. And within another 48 hours, dental plaque can harden into tartar – which, besides being so hard it can only be removed by dental tools, also greatly increases the likelihood of developing advanced stages of gum disease, cavities, tooth loss and jaw bone loss.
How do you keep the biofilm in your mouth at healthy levels? The solution is twofold:
1) Keep your mouth clean
2) Keep your mouth pH neutral
Keep It Clean
This one is simple, and the most important: brush and floss thoroughly every day, and visit your dentist for professional teeth cleanings regularly.
Brushing sweeps away plaque-y biofilm from about 60% of your teeth surfaces and gum line, and flossing cleans away the remaining 40% that your toothbrush can’t reach. Even if you brush and floss daily, it is entirely possible to have hard-to-reach areas that aren’t cleaned well. Professional cleanings ensure the removal of any plaque or tartar buildup that could otherwise lead to a wide range of oral health issues. We recommend a professional dental cleaning once every six months, though more frequent visits may be recommended depending on your oral health.
Keep Your Mouth pH Neutral
pH measures how acidic or basic a substance is in a value range of 0 to 14 – with pH of 7 being neutral, anything below 7 being considered acidic, and anything above 7 considered basic. In our mouths, the pH is maintained near neutrality by saliva, and a saliva pH of 7.0 usually indicates healthy teeth and gums as well. However, the things we eat and drink can throw off our oral pH, along with certain medications and health conditions,
When biofilm is acidic (below pH 7), it begins to eat away at tooth enamel, leaching it of minerals (a process called demineralization) and making enamel far weaker to permanent damage – aka dental caries, or cavities. Tooth enamel starts to dissolve when the pH level is 5.5, the critical pH for caries development. When biofilm is basic (above pH 7; a much rarer condition), cavities do not develop but it may irritate the gums.
How to maintain neutral pH levels in the mouth:
Reduce sugar consumption – the #1 culprit for acidic oral pH! Frequently eating or drinking sugary things gives oral bacteria plenty of fuel to produce acid, which means that our teeth and gums are coated in acidic biofilm for extended periods of time.
Limit intake of acidic food and drinks, like citrus fruits, sodas, juices, and alcohol. Rinse your mouth with water afterwards to help reset pH balance.
Drink plenty of fluoridated water. Drinking plain water helps to restore pH neutrality in the mouth, rinses away acids, bacteria and food debris, and combats dry mouth. Fluoride actually lowers the critical pH for caries development (meaning that it will take an even lower/more acidic environment than pH 5.5 for cavities to start developing), while also strengthening and remineralizing tooth enamel.
Chew on xylitol-sweetened gum in place of sugary gum, snacking, smoking, etc. Xylitol is a natural, plant derived sweetener that neutralizes the pH balance of your mouth and is indigestible by bacteria, meaning far less cavity-causing acid is produced in the mouth.
Don’t eat late at night. Due to our natural circadian rhythm, our bodies produce far less saliva at night. So if you eat or drink before going to bed, the natural reduction of saliva flow means that the pH level of your mouth will stay low and acidic throughout the entire night, which makes your teeth far more susceptible to developing cavities.
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