How Bacteria Can Make Breath Bad (& 10 Tips for Doing Something About It)

As long as there have been mouths, there has been stinky breath, but it took modern advertising to turn it into a cause for mortification, fueling fear of total social ostracism. The marketers even created a new, medical-ish sounding name for the condition: halitosis (from the Latin halitus, meaning breath, and the Greek osis, indicating a disease state). Suddenly, if you had bad breath, you were now known as “halitoxic.”

vintage Listerine ad

Anxiety sold a whole lot of Listerine. And while it does “kill germs,” it does so indiscriminately, killing helpful bacteria right along with the harmful kind. A healthy mouth needs a healthy bacterial balance, with plenty of the good guys present to keep the bad guys in check.

What’s more, strong mouthwashes can wind up drying out the oral tissues, which can actually perpetuate the problem of bad breath. Chronic dry mouth is one cause of it. Others include smoking, certain medical conditions, and some medications.

The most common cause of all, though, is simply poor oral hygiene, which allows harmful bacteria to build up in the mouth and produce foul-smelling gasses. The major compound behind that stench is methyl mercaptan, an odor-causing compound also associated with periodontitis. (Chronic bad breath can be a sign of advanced gum disease.)

Now, new research in the journal mSystems sheds light on how oral bacteria generate this compound.

To investigate, the research team developed a large-scale system to grow important bacteria together in controlled laboratory conditions without oxygen. They could then study the interactions and behaviors of the representative bacteria they chose to study, all of which were bacteria involved in the gum disease process, including S. gordonii, F. nucleatum, and P. gingivalis.

“Through stable isotope tracers and gene expression analysis,” reported Dr. Bicuspid,

they found that S. gordonii released ornithine, an amino acid produced in the body and stimulated F. nucleatum to produce more polyamine, a compound that regulates cellular and genetic functions. This in turn triggered F. nucleatum‘s methionine salvage pathway, a process that recycles metabolites that contain sulfur to methionine, which led to heightened CH3SH [methyl mercaptan] production, the authors wrote.

More methyl mercaptan, stinkier breath.

The good news is that there is plenty that you can do to keep your breath odor-free:

  1. Stay Hydrated: Drinking plenty of water helps keep your mouth moist and washes away food particles and bacteria. It also supports healthy saliva production.
  2. Maintain Good Oral Hygiene: Brushing your teeth at least twice a day and flossing daily helps remove plaque and the bacteria that lead to bad breath. You can ramp up your hygiene game by making oil pulling and oral irrigation a regular part of your routine, as well. A Waterpik is great for flushing out the periodontal pockets where harmful bacteria like to hang out.
  3. Use the Power of Ozone: Ozonated oil, toothpaste, or mouth rinse can deliver natural antimicrobial power without side effects. Or see a biological dentist for professional full-mouth ozone therapy. (Learn more about ozone, which can also help treat TMJ disorders and more.)
  4. Use a Tongue Scraper: Gently scraping your tongue can help remove bacteria and debris that contribute to bad breath.
  5. Eat Fresh Fruits and Vegetables: Crunchy fruits and vegetables like apples and carrots can help clean your teeth and freshen your breath.
  6. Chew Sugar-free Gum: Chewing sugar-free gum stimulates saliva production, which can help wash away bacteria and neutralize odors. Gum sweetened with xylitol or erythritol may even offer some protection against tooth decay. That said, we don’t recommend this if you have a TMJ order, nor do we recommend chewing constantly, as the excess stress it puts on your jaw joints can be damaging over time.
  7. Try Natural Remedies: Herbs like parsley, mint, rosemary, and fennel have natural deodorizing properties that can help freshen your breath.
  8. Stay Stress-free: Stress can contribute to dry mouth, which can lead to bad breath. Practice relaxation techniques to keep stress levels in check.
  9. Consider Oral Appliance Therapy: If you have chronic bad breath due to issues like sleep apnea or snoring, oral appliance therapy from a holistic dental office can help address the underlying causes.
  10. If You Use an Oral Appliance, Clean It Regularly and Well: Whether it’s for apnea, a TMJ disorder, or orthodontic treatment, any device needs to be cleaned daily just as your teeth need to be cleaned. Otherwise, it harbors bacteria that can make bad breath even worse. You’ll find some basic cleaning tips here.

And if your bad breath persists, be sure to make an appointment to see us (or your local dentist, if you live beyond southern Orange County, CA). There could be a health condition or other problem that’s contributing to the problem. It’s vital to get to the root cause so you can address it and have stinky breath be a thing of the past.

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