Aren’t you glad
that you can’t see bacteria?
There are lots of “germs” in the human mouth. In dental biofilm alone – the “plaque” that coats your teeth between cleanings – there are more than 600 kinds, including 25 species of streptococci. One of the most problematic is S. mutans – the main causative agent of tooth decay.
Streptococci – as well as Neisseria – are quick to colonize on the teeth. The acidic waste they produce in the process changes the oral environment, making it easier for other microbes to grow and multiply, too. It also eventually damages your teeth, destroying enamel and causing decay.
S. mutans has also been linked to heart disease and other inflammatory conditions – another reason to keep it under control.
Brushing and flossing, of course, are the main ways we regularly break up this biofilm to keep it from doing damage. A low-sugar diet can also help keep the bacteria in check, starving them of the sugar they live on. Using antimicrobial toothpastes or rinses will kill some of them, but not all.
For years, researchers have looked for other ways of controlling S. mutans, including substances that can safely inhibit its growth. One candidate is oolong tea, which, in addition to its traditional use in treating conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure and eczema, also seems to protect against tooth decay.
At this summer’s meeting of the European Organization for Caries Research, a team of Japanese scientists presented their latest findings on the tea’s antimicrobial potential. Earlier this year, their paper in Caries Research showed how oolong tea extract may reduce S. mutans‘ rate of acid production. Their latest findings suggest that drinking the tea itself could be beneficial. According to Dr. Bicuspid’s coverage [free site registration may be required] of the meeting:
Oolong tea polyphenols appear to help prevent dental caries by inhibiting the function of glucosyltransferases, which play a key role in Streptococcus mutans, a primary causative agent of dental caries in humans, the researchers noted.
“We concluded that drinking oolong tea is a useful means of inhibiting dental plaque formation,” they wrote.
Previous studies of polyphenols in cranberries, red wine and other substances have similarly shown a positive anti-caries effect.
That said, the take-away message isn’t necessarily “drink tea and avoid cavities.” As ADA spokesperson Dr. Matthew Messina notes in the story,
I’m always open to new research that may offer suggestions for patients to avoid dental decay, and everyone would like there to be an easier way (just drink this or eat that), but brush, floss, and see your dentist is still the best. It’s not sexy, but it works.
Amen to that.