So if you have been reading my site (here, here, here), or any other health information recently, I know you have heard about probiotics and their benefits for our health. What you probably haven’t heard about is the content and diversity of our oral bacteria (the bacteria in our mouths) and their impact on not only our dental health, but our overall health status. That’s right! Another fun fact is that our diet plays a significant role in the type and diversity of the oral bacteria species in our mouth, and surprise surprise, the change in the human diet at the onset of agriculture (increase in cereal grain consumption) lead to changes in our oral bacteria and subsequently tooth decay and oral pathology.
Human Evolution & Diet
So prior to the advent of agriculture – approximately 10,000 years ago – we humans were hunter gatherers. For simplicity sake, since it is likely much more complicated than we could even imagine, what this meant was that we did not “farm” any type of food. We hunted animals and fish, and gathered edible vegetation where is was growing wild. From what I understand, grains were very time consuming and difficult to process into a safely edible and somewhat nutrition state; therefore, it is likely that cereal grains were not consumed close to the extent they are today. At the end of the day, the human diet in those days, although widely varied in macro-nutrient composition, would have consisted of the following foods: Animals, fish, seasonal fruits and vegetables (including starchy tubers), and some nuts and seeds; and don’t forget about bugs 🙂
As our species began to shift to agriculture as the major source of food production, for some reason, some very bright individual (sense the sarcasm) decided to begin to farm wheat. Our diets then began to shift to a more soft carbohydrate containing diet. Then, once we hit the industrial revolution, we introduced even more wonderfully processed carbohydrates such as processed grains and refined sugar. Then, fast forward to present day with the realization that high fructose corn syrup is pretty much in every processed food you can find.
Dietary Evolution and Oral Pathology Evolution
It should be obvious by now if you have ever listened to a dentist (candy is bad for your teeth), that our diets have changed for the worse with regards to dental health, not to mention health in general, but this is a topic for another day. Not surprisingly, what is seen in the fossil record is that the remains of hunter gatherers show very little evidence of tooth decay; however, the remains of humans in early farming populations show significant evidence of tooth decay. I have actually heard that this is one of the things archaeologists look for in remains to determine if the population they are studying were farmers of hunter gatherers.
How it All Ties to Oral Bacteria
I don’t have the best understanding of how cavities and other oral pathologies arise, it has to do with beneficial and detrimental bacteria growth in your mouth. Increased ingestion of the types of carbohydrates listed above generates mono and disaccharides in the mouth, which are fermented by certain types of bacteria and lead to tooth demineralization because of lowered pH. This carbohydrate ingestion/tooth decay connection is supported by the fact that the oral bacteria seen in pre-agricultural humans had a greater biodiversity than that of post agricultural humans (up to the present day). What’s more, is that hunter gatherers appeared to have more “good” bacteria that are not associated with oral pathology than early agricultural humans and modern humans. Even more concerning is that modern humans have an oral bacterial environment that is dominated by “bad” bacteria that are associated with oral pathology. Guess what, in the end, as it is with many health related things, it all ties into what you eat. #JERF
What, You Say You Don’t Care About Oral Health
So what if you have a few cavities, root canals, gingivitis, or loose teeth, your dentist can just fix it all up nicely…right? Not sure if that is the best attitude since bad oral health has been suggested as a risk factor for other conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, possibly due to the fact that it can cause a prolonged inflammatory state. Although I would wager, based on the above, that people with poor dental health have poor diets that lead to both chronic illness and bad teeth.
Will there soon be probiotics for our mouths to prevent tooth decay and oral pathology…it would be interesting, but for me, I will just stick with eating as close to a hunter gatherer diet as I can in this day and age, and hopefully my oral bacteria will follow suit.
This whole thing has also got me thinking about how things like alcohol based mouthwash and similar products may have a negative effect on oral bacteria also (ie. similar to antibiotics and intestinal bacteria). Interesting, and something I may look into at a later date.
Majority of the above information is from the below referenced study.
The Barefoot Golfer