Hygienists are some of the only preventive specialists who are in the position to discuss patients’ oral health in conjunction with other overarching health issues. In addition to oral and systemic health, gut health is one of the most important topics to broach with patients.
Gut health is defined by the balance of bacteria and a combination of many organs that work together to adequately and efficiently perform functions of the gastrointestinal tract, such as eating and digesting food comfortably. An area that was once under-researched, new insight into gut health now presents a wealth of information that supports a link between a healthy or unhealthy gut and a person’s oral health.
As hygienists know, periodontal disease is a multifactorial disease that not only develops from bacteria present in the mouth but also from the response of the host. Current literature shows that the bacteria alone is not solely responsible for the many types of periodontal disease and “it is becoming increasingly apparent that it is the host inflammatory response to the subgingival bacteria that is responsible for the tissue damage and, most likely, progression of the disease.” One of the contributing factors to periodontal disease lies in the health of bacteria in the gut.
What The Gut Does
The gastrointestinal system is not only responsible for the consumption and digestion of food; it also plays a central role in immune system homeostasis, constantly interacting with bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, and helminths, as well as other toxic substances or useful flora.3 More than 70% of our immune response comes from the cells within the gut. A single drop of fluid from your colon contains over a billion bacteria.
Your gut bacteria reflects everything about you, including “your parents’ health, how and where you were born, what you’ve eaten (including whether your first sips were breast milk or formula), where you’ve lived, your occupation, personal hygiene, past infections, exposure to chemicals and toxins, medications, hormone levels, and even your emotions (stress can have a profound effect on the microbiome).”
Gut bacteria play an essential role in keeping our bodies healthy. Some of the roles our gut bacteria have are:
- Converting sugars to short-chain fatty acids (SFCAs) for energy
- Crowding out pathogens
- Digesting food and absorbing nutrients such as calcium and iron
- Keeping pH balanced
- Maintaining the integrity of the gut lining
- Metabolizing drugs
- Modulating genes
- Neutralizing cancer-causing compounds
- Producing digestive enzymes
- Synthesizing hormones and vitamins
- Training the immune system to distinguish friend from foe
When trying to determine what factors are contributing to a patient’s disease, the health of the gut microbiome must be evaluated due to its many functions and contributions to the body.
Promoting A Healthy Gut
Though our culture craves wellness, health protocols usually revolve around fitness and diet and rarely discuss how to increase the health of the millions of microscopic friends in our gut.
When looking to promote a healthy gut (for yourself or your patients) there are many things that can have a positive effect, including:
Fiber: It creates short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and lowers the inflammatory reaction. Pre- and probiotics help feed the microbiome. Eat a variety of fresh vegetables and fruit.
Exercise: Weightlifting increases SCFAs for the next 18 hours and reduces inflammatory responses.
Intermittent fasting: This has been clinically proven to reduce inflammation.
Reducing stress: When stressed, long-term healing is reduced, the mucus layer in your gut thins out, cortisol is elevated, sleep quality and quantity decreases, gut bacteria decrease in diversity, and glucocorticoids destroy cells in the brain.
Getting adequate sleep: Our bodies heal when we sleep. Digestive issues are common in people with regularly disrupted sleep.