While most of us readily open up about our headaches, fatigue or toothaches, we’re less up front about our bad breath.
Recent market research commissioned by Sydney Holistic Dental Centre, found 72 per cent of Australian adults surveyed lived in fear of having bad breath. While 93 per cent had experienced foul mouth odours from someone else, one in five would never confess to anyone else about their own unpleasant smelling mouth.
Experts reveal bad breath is a signal our body is out of balance, with the food we eat playing a major role.
What causes bad breath?
According to holistic dentist, health advocate and author Dr Ron Ehrlich, bad breath is caused by bacteria – or rather an imbalance of them in our mouths.
“We hear so much about the microbiome in the gut,” Dr Ehrlich says. “There are over 700 different micro-organisms in the mouth that we know of. It’s a balance between good and bad, as it is throughout our entire body.”
Many pathogenic bacteria (the undesirable ones) in our mouths produce gaseous waste products with offensive odours – like the hydrogen sulfide (think rotten eggs), cadaverine and putrescine.
“If you want to know what your mouth smells like, take a whiff of your dental floss after flossing, or lick your hand and sniff it,” he suggests.
Dr Ehrlich, who practices at the Sydney Holistic Dental Centre, says an ‘out of balance’ oral microbiome is caused chiefly by too much sugar and carbs in the diet.
“The pathogenic bacteria [those responsible for bad breath, tooth decay and gum disease] love carbohydrates and they specifically love sugar. The question isn’t whether you love a lot of beer or wine, the question is, does your microbiome like it? They have a much bigger impact on your health than you might think.”
Inadequate oral hygiene, decaying teeth, gum disease, lack of saliva production and chronic mouth breathing (which dries out the mouth and alters bacterial balance) are other common causes.
Thus, good oral hygiene (brushing twice a day, flossing daily), and regular trips to the dentist remain important.
Occasionally, foul breath can indicate serious health issues, he says. Like diabetes (sweet-smelling breath), liver problems (rotten egg odour) or kidney issues (a fishy smell).
“It can also come from the sinuses, the throat, tonsils or adenoid area.”
Mouthwashes are a temporary measure.
“Bad breath and its products are a $10 billion industry globally,” he says. “It’s a really interesting metaphor for the way a lot of western medicine is approached … symptomatic relief for what is really a much bigger problem”.
Foods to consume for better breath
According to Sydney-based naturopath and clinical nutritionist Tabitha Macintosh, it’s possible to balance the oral microbiome by avoiding sugars and limiting refined carbs, sweet drinks, alcohol and caffeine, the latter drying out the mouth.
Increase beneficial oral bacteria by supplementing with probiotics and consuming fermented foods. These are natural sources of good bacteria and include water kefir, sauerkraut, kim chi, or small amounts of (fermented tea drink) kombucha as well as yoghurt. Ms Macintosh recommends only natural, sugar-free varieties.
The bacteria responsible for driving halitosis also thrive in a high-protein environment, she says, whereas,
“Vegetables selectively feed the good bacteria. The more colour and variety the better.”
Snacking out on raw vegetables also stimulates saliva production. Choose veggies over fruit – they’re lower in natural sugars.
Apple, mint and lettuce reduced garlic breath in a study published in the Journal of Food Science in 2016. Fresh herbs and leafy greens have also been hailed as effective breath deodorisers.
Some foods are able to destroy the pathogenic bacterial species – like streptococcus mutans, which dominates dental plaque – in our mouths. A 2011 review of foods with action against oral pathogenic bacteria species (published in Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine) found cranberry, cloves, ginger, garlic and tea effective.
The best drink for the mouth is plenty of water. Ditch sugary beverages and sweet juices and opt for filtered water, herbal teas or lemon in hot water, Ms Macintosh says.
“Keeping packaged and processed foods to a minimum is also an ideal way to look after the ecosystem of the mouth.”
A study of the eating habits of 360,000 teenagers, published in the journal PLOS One in 2015, found those eating the most fast food more likely to suffer from halitosis.
As well as our diets, we should pay attention to lifestyle factors, Ms Macintosh concludes. Stress, pharmaceutical and recreational drugs including cigarettes, can also disrupt the microbiome of the mouth.