The function of the mouth and it’s relation to digestive health
Caroline is a Dental Hygiene/Therapist. I wanted to catch up with her to gain a deeper understanding about the importance of the mouth and its relation to the digestive system. Caroline works in the North East of England and frequently carries out cleaning and gum disease work on her younger clients. This also includes fillings and the extraction of baby teeth.

“Taking teeth out of children has to be one of the worst things to carry out in a job roll and this has actually led me down the path towards studying functional medicine. We are all taught sugar is bad, but I wanted to know the ins and out and why one child in a family would have more decay than the other but they were eating the same diet.” Says Caroline.

Caroline’s MSc in Nutritional Science and Practice will qualify her as a BANT registered Nutritional Therapist and its this training that will allow her to work with patients on a one to one basis to try to get to the root cause of the issues. Caroline is also a Myofunctional Therapist and rebreathing practitioner. This is a program to promote correct oral posture. Caroline says, “So many people are mouth breathing these days at the detrimental cost of their health. Whatever nutrient we think we are lacking from our diet, we have to remember oxygen is number 1. Mouth breathing reduces the oxygen that is released from the blood cells and can impair on sleep, attention, concentration, mood, immunity……..the list goes one, and this requires a whole other interview on airway health.”

1. The mouth is the first place of digestion, but are you able to explain in a little more detail about what happens in the mouth when we first begin to chew our food?

The digestive system is so beautifully designed and probably starts before we put anything in our mouth to be honest. A recent study showed, albeit in mice, that the sight and smell of food was enough to kick start the process of digestion by the liver. Cooking food, touching the food, pealing, chopping etc are actually part of our digestive system and more reason why we need to get back in the kitchen. In the mouth we have teeth designed to chew our food. This mechanical breakdown of food allows a larger surface area for the digestive enzymes to get to work. Chewing stimulated the nervous system and activates more salivary production. We should be eating harder foods, especially as the jaw is developing as this promotes bine growth. We have created a world to make things easy, but in doing so, its having a negative effect on childhood development……get the kids chewing!

2. Why are the enzymes in our mouth important and do you know what role they play in relation to digestive health?

A digestive enzyme is a chemical that speeds up a reaction. Salivary amylase is the main enzyme produced in mouth by the salivary glands and is designed to breakdown carbohydrates and salivary lipase starts the digestion of fats. It’s so important to remember that the mouth is the beginning of the digestive system and chewing our food and the smelling our food initiated the production of the saliva.

3. What causes bad breath and how can we prevent it?

Bad breath (halitosis) can actually be for a number of reasons. Poor oral hygiene and broken down proteins (tooth decay and gum disease) are the most common at 90%. This gives a very distinctive rotten egg smell. Other causes of bad breath are from diseases in your body including; tonsils, lungs, sinus, diabetes, liver, drugs, metabolic disorder and menstruation. Overall it is caused by imbalances in the body relating to bacteria and how our immune system reacts to it. Mouth breathing can also contribute to this too. The saliva acts as a lubricant and it contains protective components. If the mouth is dry, then the risk of bacterial overgrowth is higher. Those who sleep with their mouth open often complain of bad breath in the morning. It’s really important to nasal breathe both day and night.

4. Is there any relation to the way we chew our food and our mood? For example, if we speed through meals and don’t chew properly, could there be a link to a lower mood; feelings of unsatisfactory after eating etc.

Chewing our food properly is extremely overlooked in modern day society. When we chew food it stimulates saliva production to release the enzymes talked about earlier, to help us break down the food. It also stimulates all of the cranial nerves which have a massive significance on the overall nervous system. If we eat too fast, or on the go, our body will not process the food effectively. The digestive system has to be rested before it can digest. Smoothies full of fruit are not great either. The sugar becomes free, rather than bound to the fibre and the body absorbs it faster leaving you with a spike in glucose level and the inevitable crash. Chewing also stimulates bone growth. This is of huge significance on the developing skull in children. It’s so important to wean children on types of food that is going to stimulate the mouth, teeth, jaw and tongue for proper development of the mouth. Incorrect development can lead to a narrow airway which can then lead to breathing and sleep issues.

5. You have spoken to me before about tongue ties and their relation to some mood disorders we are seeing today, are you able to explain in more detail what this means?

Ah yes, I could talk about this for hours but I will just give a snippet for now. Tongue tie is getting a lot of press at the moment and is this because it’s on the rise, or are people just becoming aware? I wasn’t taught about the significance of tongue tie in dental school and until recently, had bypassed it when carrying out treatment. Now I screen all of my patients and it’s amazing how this small piece of connective tissue can have such a dramatic effect on overall health. The tongue is designed to sit in the roof of the mouth. It’s such a powerful organ consisting of 4 muscles intrinsically and 4 extrinsic. Every time you swallow, which is around 1000 times a day, you exert 500g of pressure!! That’s massive. You can see that if the tongue is not allowed to rest or swallow in the correct way, it will have an effect on how the cranium (skull) develops, because we have to remember, bone forms in the way that we exert pressure on it. Proper development means a larger airway. Airway is always number one. Those who are tongue tied, cannot rest their tongue in the roof of the mouth, and because the tongue falls low, through gravity, the mouth will be forced open. An open mouth means mouth breathing which then has a massive impact on the immune system and the nervous system. Mouth breathing during the day will equal mouth breathing at night. This then affects the quality of the sleep in the individual and often airway constriction. Your body will do everything to stay alive, so if you are not breathing affectively, your body will not allow you to drop into the deep reparative sleep for your body to repair. Poor sleep can lead to concentration and attention issues during the day. Bed wetting can also be a red flag of sleep breathing issues, as the heart is under stress and produced a diuretic hormone in response.

We have to look for the root cause of these issues without just labelling people. Breathing is the most important thing we do every second of every day. All health care providers should be aware of this and making people aware of the hidden dangers.

6. In Chinese medicine, having poor gut health is often visible in the mouth (when I had Candida overgrowth I had a white tongue), do you know anymore about this and why the Chinese have this belief, is there any truth in it do you think?

I’m fascinated by Chinese medicine and regularly have acupuncture treatment which benefits me greatly. They use the tongue as a diagnostic tool and different parts relate to specific organs of the body. The more I delve into the gut and also the fascia system (the connective tissue that keeps us all together) the more the eastern philosophies make sense. The tongue should be looked at in more detail in western medicine. The mouth is definitely the gateway to the rest of the body. The tongue is connected all the way down to your big toe down the deep frontal fascia line. If out connective tissue is not healthy, this then has an effect on our whole posture. It will affect how we breathe, how we digest food, how we sleep!

7. Do you know anything about bacteria’s in the mouth and what can we do to help maintain a good balance in our mouth?

Yes, there is a microbiome of the mouth. Also in your ears, nose and eyes and generally all over. The microbiome is everywhere. The oral microbiome communicates with the gut microbiome and vice versa. If we are feeding the oral microbiome refined sugars, poor quality packaged food and lots of additives then this will dictate the microbes that will populate. I think it’s important to remember that microbes are not bad, it’s when certain species over populate, this is when we have an issue. If these microbes then populate under the gum margin and in between the teeth without proper brushing, they will then cause the body to go into an inflammatory response as the body will always want to protect you from invasion. It’s now thought that advanced gum disease is an autoimmune disease.

9. How bad is sugar really for our mouths and can sugar also feed the bad bacteria lurking in our mouth?

Sugar is a generic term for a sweet tasting carbohydrate. Simple sugars are called monosaccharides and include glucose, fructose and galactose. The table sugar that we commonly use and add to foods is derived from a mixture of glucose and fructose and is a di-saccharide.

When we eat sugar, certain bacteria feed off the sugar and produce acid. This acid then starts to dissolve the outermost layer of enamel away. Once the enamel has been penetrated, the bacteria can get in the middle of the tooth it spreads fast and can cause permanent damage and pain.

It’s worth remembering that each tooth is a live organ with its own blood and nerve supply. If we have a high sugar diet and poor gut health, this affects the quality of the blood which in turn effects how the tooth repairs and defends itself from the inside out too.

10. Have you any good tips for us to ensure we have good oral hygiene?

  • Brush twice a day – especially before bed. We don’t produce the protective saliva at night and if there is plaque on the teeth and food debris, then this can cause bacteria and acid overload.

  • See a Dentist/Hygienist regularly so then can assess and point out issues early to stop the progression.

  • Always nasal breathe when at rest both day and night.

  • Eat whole foods as much as possible

  • Chew chew chew

  • Drink enough water to stay hydrated

  • If you have bleeding gums, always look for the root cause

  • If you think you have tongue tie, get it assessed by someone who has done extra training in the field and try to prevent extraction orthodontics.

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