In recent years, the term “probiotics” has become more common, yet many people are unfamiliar with what they actually are or how they can benefit your health.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that are typically ingested through foods such as yogurt or dietary supplements. They’re known to benefit the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is intimately associated with overall health and wellness. This is important to us as pediatric dentists because the mouth is the start of the GI tract. An unhealthy mouth often results in an unhealthy gut, and vice versa.
The mouth is where digestion begins. Several enzymes in saliva – amylase, lingual lipase – begin to break down carbohydrates and fats into simpler and smaller molecules that the body can absorb. Chewing thoroughly is the best way to increase breakdown of these larger molecules and increase the release of salivary enzymes. Yet most people aren’t chewing food enough!
The number of chews varies by food, but the average recommended is about 30 chews. The smaller the food, the easier it will be for the body to absorb the nutrients.
Food’s next stop is the stomach via the esophagus. There, the highly acidic environment and different enzymes work together to break down proteins into their smaller components. It then moves on to the small intestine – the primary site of nutrient absorption in the body.
By this point, in a healthy gut, food is ready to be absorbed. There’s just a simple layer of cells – epithelial cells – that the nutrients must cross so they can be released into the entire body.
Ideally, the small intestine will be also lined with healthy gut bacteria to aid in these processes. But certain conditions and medications may cause that healthy bacteria to be displaced by harmful, toxin-releasing microbes. These toxins affect the epithelial layer of cells that regulates the absorption of nutrients by the body.
If this layer of cells is harmed, bacterial by-products may enter the body, or nutrients may not be properly absorbed. This is a condition known as “leaky gut.” Symptoms of leaky gut include diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, poor immune system, headaches, and fatigue.
The immune system is tightly integrated with the digestive system, and bad bacteria in the gut will alert the immune system to the imbalance. This is evident in the mouth as well, in the form of swelling of the gums, tongue, and signs of digestive issues.
The same principle applies in the mouth: Harmful bacteria can overgrow and replace good bacteria in the oral cavity. Fostering good bacteria in a clean mouth is the first step in promoting overall digestive health.
One of the best ways to maintain a stable and functioning gut and mouth is to supplement a healthy diet with probiotics. Yogurt is one of the most cost-effective and well-known source of probiotics. But the challenge remains: How to safely get to the small intestine without being destroyed by the acidic stomach.
There are many different forms of probiotics on the market, including probiotics specific to your mouth. We recommend consulting with your trusted health care provider on which options are best for you. Your gut and mouth will thank you.
Digestive system diagram adapted from an image by CNX OpenStax, via Wikimedia Commons