How Do Probiotics Prevent Tooth Decay?
Let’s start with a simple look at the process of tooth decay: Acids produced by bacteria in the mouth eat away at the teeth and create decay.
To break that down a bit further:
- The acids attack the outer layer, the tooth enamel
- As the acids continue to eat away, the enamel layer is penetrated
- The damage continues to the middle layer of the tooth (the dentin)
- And then on through to the center pulp (containing nerves and blood vessels)
These holes are called cavities and as we all probably know, cavities can be quite painful. The bacteria also leads to infections in the teeth and infections that can spread throughout your system.
When such decay progresses too far then the tooth is often lost.
It is a serious matter and along with gum disease has been called the “Silent Epidemic.” In fact, the average American adult has more than 10 teeth that are decayed or have been filled or are missing. Over 25% of ALL Americans over 65 have lost ALL of their teeth.
Dental Plaque, also Called Biofilm
Plaque is a type of biofilm.
What is a biofilm? It is a tightly grouped mix of microorganisms that bind together and then adhere to surfaces-such as your teeth. Just as in the illustration, bacteria like to group together.
It is easier to understand plaque and its damaging effects if you can picture it as a living “film” that covers the surface of your teeth and extends down beneath the gum line.
Plaque is a living coating that sticks to your teeth and down into your gums.
Why is that a problem? By itself a biofilm or plaque is not necessarily bad. We have biofilms throughout our body and they play an important role in our survival… until they get out of balance or out of control.
For example, with plaque there can be an overgrowth and imbalance of bad bacteria. These particular bacteria create a lot of acid and these acids create damage in your mouth.
Picture an acidic film that sits on your teeth and down under your gum line.
Then picture what that acidic film can do on a 24/7 basis and you should have a clear idea of how tooth decay takes place.
Sugary foods, for example, are superfood for these bacteria.
- The bacteria feed on the sugar
- Which triggers a higher production of destructive acids
- The acids then eat away at the enamel
- This acidic environment also demineralizes the teeth which weakens them further
- The acidic environment is ideal for the growth of the bad bacteria, so they grow faster and stronger
- The acidic environment is bad for the beneficial bacteria, so they die off
- Tooth decay and gum disease accelerate in this weakened environment
But I Brush and Floss…
That is fantastic and you should continue, but it may not be enough.
The problem is that the biofilm is very persistent and entrench themselves in hard to access areas, such as in the gums and tooth crevices. Just brushing and flossing doesn’t always reach these zones. Here, in these areas, the bacteria can be at their strongest, creating acids that eat away at your teeth and foster gum disease.
Of all the numerous strains of bacteria present in the oral cavity, there is one bacterial strain that is primarily associated with tooth decay. It is named “Streptococcus Mutans,” or “S. Mutans” for short. This bacteria is known for its ability to rapidly metabolize sugars and its powerful ability to produce acids. Multiple tests have shown that the presence and quantity of S. Mutans is an effective marker for the likelihood of tooth decay and gum disease.
Other tests have demonstrated that those individuals that were without, or had few cavities, also had high levels of probiotics (bacteria) that were known for their ability to suppress the S. Mutans strain.(1) It is important to know that higher levels of the S. Mutans strain of bacteria have been directly associated with higher levels of tooth decay and an increased progression rate of gum disease. (2) It is also important to know that studies have shown that oral probiotics are effective in reducing S. Mutans levels in the oral cavity.
The mechanics behind the use of oral probiotics to protect against tooth decay are simple: 1) reduce the levels of S. Mutans and 2) this then would reduce the probability of tooth decay and cavities.
How Do Oral Probiotics Work to Fight Tooth Decay?
- First, oral probiotics are able to colonize and aggregate within the biofilm, plaque, that is the breeding ground for decay-causing bacteria
- Second, the oral probiotics are able to compete against the bad bacteria. In effect they crowd out the bad bacteria by establishing themselves in the limited space of the biofilm
- Third, the lower the volume of S. Mutans and other acid-forming bacteria the less acid is produced to further tooth decay
- Fourth, the oral probiotics work to form a less acidic pH balance. This has the double effect of not only reducing acid levels but also establishes a pH level that inhibits the growth of S. Mutans
- Fifth, as a part of the biofilm the oral probiotics are able to make their way into those difficult to reach areas of the teeth and gums. Once there they can continuously work to create a balance and environment that discourages and inhibits tooth decay