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How Fibre May Keep Your Mouth Healthy

For decades, good oral health has focused on three primary activities. We brush to keep teeth white, floss to maintain healthy gums, and for some, rinse with mouthwash to freshen breath. We want to keep bad microbes at bay. But there is a catch to this strategy.
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For decades, good oral health has focused on three primary activities. We brush to keep teeth white, floss to maintain healthy gums, and for some, rinse with mouthwash to freshen breath. Behind all three of these measures is a common goal. We want to keep bad microbes at bay.

We all know certain species are involved in plaque formation, gum inflammation, and infections of the tongue, such as thrush. There is even evidence to suggest some bacteria are also associated with oral cancer. Considering the troubles we face when these microbial foes take hold, it's worth the few minutes every day to stay healthy.

But there is a catch to this strategy. Focusing only on microbes leaves out an important part of our body's health equation, the cells themselves. Our mouths are filled with cells and molecules specifically designed to protect our oral health. If we want to have the best defense against troubles, we should be aiming to keep our natural defenses ready to take on any challenges.

In the gut, some of the most important immune balancing molecules are found in fibre. These indigestible molecules, with names such as fructooligosaccharide, lactulose, and chitosan have shown to be excellent additions to any diet. One particular fibre molecule found in oats, known as beta-glucan, has shown some of the best short-term effects in harmonizing our immunity and resisting infections.

Taking this into consideration, in 2005, a group of Norwegian researchers attempted to find out whether a mouthwash containing beta-glucan might help reduce the chances for gum disease, usually called gingivitis. The results showed some promise as some improvement in the defense forces was seen. However, the joy was short-lived.

In 2008, some of the same researchers conducted a clinical study using the same mouthwash. Unfortunately, the results were not as positive. The only aspect of improvement came in the reduction of inflammation, not the reversal of gingivitis. Moreover, the improvement was only seen in those who swallowed the solution.

The trick to a healthy mouth may lie in time, not concentration.

As a result of the less than spectacular outcome of the human experiments, the concept of using beta-glucans in oral rinses lost steam. Over the years that followed, researchers tried to understand why the trials were not as effective as anticipated. While there was still a belief in the use of fibre in an oral rinse, the evidence simply was not there.

For a team of Brazilian and American scientists, the answer lied not in an examination of the immune system directly, but the cells in the mouth that signal immunity. For them, beta-glucans were more important as triggers of immune action, such as an early warning signal. Earlier this month, they revealed what might be a new spark for fibre in mouthwashes. Based on their results, the trick to a healthy mouth may lie in time, not concentration.

The experiments were relatively straightforward. The team used the same cells found in our gums and made a matrix that mimicked the mouths. They then added a pathogen, a tongue-twister known as Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans. In one case, the experiment was left alone. In another, very small concentrations of beta-glucans were added to the environment. The group then waited a day before examining the cells. If they were right, the addition of the fibre would have added an increased amount of protection against infection.

When the results came back, the team found a rather surprising scenario had taken place when beta-glucans were added. First off, some of the bacteria were killed suggesting the fibre had some antimicrobial activity. This hinted as to why the earlier study didn't work. The addition of fibre required a longer period of time to be worthwhile.

But this was a minor finding in comparison to the effect of beta-glucans on the gum cells. Even though they were dealing with an infection, they did not overreact to the situation. They called out to the immune system as expected but the effect was far less than the controls.

The most shocking reason for this muted response was the cells' self-reliance against the invasion. They readied themselves to repair any injury. They increased their chances at surviving any chemical death triggers. They even created a cellular communication network to ensure they could work together to hold off the enemy until the immune defenses arrived. In essence, the beta-glucans were acting as an enabler of a healthier environment.

As this study was performed in the lab, the benefits of fibre on the gums can only go so far. Yet the outcomes do offer good reason to continue down this path of research. If as this study showed, beta-glucans can be useful in maintaining oral health, we may be able to design a method to allow the molecules to stay on the gums for an extended period of time. This may help our gums to resist infection and prevent gingivitis. If all goes well, we may one day add another procedure to a good oral health routine.

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