Bad Breath: What You Need to Know

Been smelling your own breath lately with all the mask-wearing? The harsh realities of the odors coming from our mouths have come front and center these days. Tic Tacs, mints and chewing gum… can’t fix a true breath problem.

While bad breath (also known as halitosis) isn’t often a symptom of disease per se, it can affect our overall well-being as well as our psychology, work life and relationships. So let’s look into why you (or someone you know) may be dealing with halitosis — and how to fix it!

6 Reasons You Might Have Bad Breath

There are several potential causes of bad breath. Commonly, it’s very simply down to a lack of oral hygiene which may be easy enough to fix. But sometimes there are deeper issues at play. We’ll start by exploring the more benign reasons for bad breath, then cover how and when it may be a red flag for more serious issues.

1 – You May Be Eating Pungent Foods

This will not come as a surprise, but certain foods are linked to transient oral malodor (or temporary bad breath). Garlic, onions and spicy food are common culprits. Sulphur compounds in these foods are particularly high, and when chewing, the bacteria in your saliva release these sulphur compounds from your food.

Volatile Sulphur Compounds (VSC)

Released by the mechanics of chewing and chemically by digestive enzymes, and no longer bound up in the food you ate, these volatile sulphur compounds quickly turn gaseous. Once able to mix with the air, volatile sulphur compounds (VSC) can exit your mouth via the breath.

Tobacco, coffee and alcohol may also perform this foul-smelling trick. It varies, but you may notice a change in breath odour for several hours. (And likely so will your family members, friends and co-workers…)

2 – You May Have Food Sensitivities

Food sensitivities can also contribute to halitosis – and lactose intolerance is a perfect example of this. When the body can’t digest the sugars in milk, the microbes that feast on those particular undigested sugars put off a sulfurous pungent odor that can be smelled on the breath.

Leaky Gut

Further down the system, improperly broken down food can make its way into your bloodstream. Normally, the gut lining works to prevent this. But in situations of chronic food sensitivity and ongoing inflammation, the protective mucosal lining of the digestive system becomes permeable.

Toxins in the bloodstream

Escaped food particles act as toxins in our blood. As the accumulation of toxins builds, we may start to notice symptoms that include bad breath. Your naturopathic doctor can help you identify any existing food sensitivities, work with you to restore your gut lining, and (as a welcome side effect) get rid of chronic bad breath.

3 – The Bacteria in Your Mouth May be Out of Balance

The mouth is an area rife with microbes and bacteria. Many of them play important roles in the first step of the digestive process. Others, such as gram-negative bacteria (like Enterobacteriaceae) take up residence under the tongue, in plaque and in the deep creases between our teeth and gums where they interact with each other, giving rise to halitosis.

No single bacterial species is to blame for bad breath, but together these bacteria cause Volatile Sulphur Compounds to be released. Some of the bacteria that thrive in the depths of the gum line can cause gum diseases such as pericoronitis or periodontal abscess, which can increase the volume of Volatile Sulphur Compounds released even more.

The Diamine Difference & Gum Disease

As we dive deeper under the gums, we see less oxygen and a lower (i.e. more acidic) pH. This acidic pH creates those smelly diamines. When food-trapping gum pockets arise due to gum disease, regular amino acids from the trapped food are converted into diamines.

When that happens, we (and those close to us) smell the difference.

4 – Your Mouth May Be Chronically Dry

Having a dry mouth, no matter the cause, is a serious issue. It’s not only uncomfortable but if the condition is ongoing it prevents the important cleansing function whereby saliva flushes bacteria out of the mouth.

Why We Get A Dry Mouth

Oral dryness can cause discomfort for a number of reasons beyond the obvious (and easy to rectify) dehydration. Mouth breathing is a common culprit, often arising from an obstruction of the sinuses and nasal cavity, and causing increased airflow and subsequent dryness in the mouth. Salivary glands may be infected, blocked or malfunctioning. And many medications also have a dry mouth listed among their side effects.

The Role of Saliva

Saliva is your mouth’s best friend. It helps wash out the mouth, reducing bacteria and preventing tooth decay, gum disease and plaque formation in the mouth. As oral bacteria have been found to have made their way to the arterial plaque of heart disease patients as well as causing issues in the mouth, we know that avoiding a chronically dry mouth is a whole-body problem – with bad breath acting as a red flag.

5 – You May Have a Yeast Overgrowth

If a candida yeast overgrowth appears in the mouth, deeper factors are often at play in the body. A healthy immune system prevents this fungus from taking root and growing. The candida species is commonly found in and on your body, but it seizes the opportunity to grow when the immunity is vulnerable.

In the case of bad breath, this underlying immune dysfunction alters the balance between your immune system and oral microbes. Candida and other microbes proliferate. Volatile Sulphur Compounds and methyl mercaptan (another player in the malodour scene) are then produced and released.

6 – You May have Ear, Nose and Throat Problems

While 90% of halitosis cases arise from the mouth alone, other systems can also be involved: Calcium deposits in the tonsils can cause a 10-fold increase in Volatile Sulphur Compound levels if they are overloaded; foreign bodies in the nose (often seen in children) are slowly dismantled by bacteria, resulting in breath odour; and infected sinuses can leak pus on the back of the tongue.

While bad breath is typically transient (think: morning breath) it can linger. For those dealing with chronic halitosis, you know just how impactful it can be.

But don’t worry. Your naturopathic doctor can help you battle your bad breath.

The Importance of Oral Hygiene

Oral hygiene is paramount when treating halitosis. Brushing, flossing, and regular dental check-ups are the foundation of good oral health. Unchecked cavities, gum disease and other dental pathologies must be addressed if you want to achieve better-smelling breath and the health benefits that come with it.

But it is important to remember that the mouth is a delicate area, it is the starting point of a carefully balanced digestive system which requires a fine balance of moisture and bacteria to work optimally.

Mouthwash

Gurgling with mouthwash is a powerful tool in your halitosis arsenal. Anti-bacterial agents flush unwanted microbes from the crevices of your teeth, tongue and gums. However, conventional products typically include an array of irritating ingredients as well.

Irritating Ingredients in Conventional Mouthwash

Artificial food dyes make mouthwash look good on a shelf, but these components can be detrimental to your mouth (and body). All nine FDA- approved artificial food dyes are linked to various health concerns. These range from sensitivities all the way to cancer.

Meanwhile, acidic stabilizing agents and alcohol can strip your teeth of and temporarily soften the enamel (make sure to brush before using mouthwash and not after for this reason).

A Better Way to Rinse

Herbal mouthwash is a safer (yet effective) approach. The right combination of botanicals can deliver multiple beneficial medicinal actions. Peppermint, for instance, is antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and helps to increase salvation. A handful of herbs and essential oils can combat bad breath on multiple fronts.

Additionally, unlike the antibacterial agents found in conventional mouthwash, these herbal ingredients don’t kill as many of the good bacteria, preserving a balance.

Oil Pulling

Oil pulling – a traditional remedy originating in India – has many therapeutic benefits. An organic oil, such as coconut or sesame, is swished around in the mouth for about 20 minutes. During this period, antioxidants in the oil break down the cell walls of harmful bacteria, effectively killing them. These bacteria stick to the oil and are “pulled” out of your mouth.

There are many benefits to oil pulling. By reducing the formation of plaque, this technique can help prevent dental cavities, gingivitis, periodontitis and, of course, bad breath.

Tongue Hygiene

While odorous bacteria are often in the gums, poor tongue hygiene also poses a problem.

The back of the tongue in particular is a source of concern. Large papillae (bumps on the tongue often containing multiple taste buds) trap particles and microorganisms that lead to bad breath. A backlog of white blood cells, saliva constituents and flakes of dead cells may all be found here – even in those with otherwise good oral hygiene.

While tongue scraping gives some short term relief, recent studies show the benefit over time is minor. Cleansing your tongue (gently and regularly) won’t cause any harm. If you’re struggling with bad breath, it may be worth a shot. But remember: there are other options.

Healthy Habits To Reduce Bad Breath

For many cases of chronic bad breath, sticking to a few simple lifestyle habits can achieve great benefits:

  • Reduce your sugar intake
  • Check for food sensitivities (especially dairy and wheat)
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Practice good oral hygiene
  • Eat an alkalizing diet (including raw apples and spinach)
  • Increase your intake of probiotic foods
  • Drink more green tea

In some cases, further investigation may be warranted. Underlying medical conditions — like sinus infections, acid reflux and diabetes — may be contributing factors to halitosis, so it is important to check in with your naturopathic doctor for the right testing and to tailor a health plan specifically for you.

Let’s face it. Chronic bad breath can put a damper on social life without you even knowing it!

Resources:

Kapoor U, Sharma G, Juneja M, Nagpal A. Halitosis: Current concepts on etiology, diagnosis and management. Eur J Dent. 2016;10(2):292-300. doi:10.4103/1305-7456.178294

Kobylewski S, Jacobson MF. Toxicology of food dyes. Int J Occup Environ Health. 2012 Jul-Sep;18(3):220-46. doi: 10.1179/1077352512Z.00000000034. PMID: 23026007.

Koga, Chihiro & Yoneda, Masahiro & Nakayama, Keisuke & Yokoue, Satoru & Haraga, Mariko & Oie, Tomoko & Suga, Arisa & Okada, Fumiko & Matsuura, Hiroshi & Tsue, Fumitake & Taniguchi, Nao & Hirofuji, Takao. (2014). The Detection of Candida Species in Patients with Halitosis. International journal of dentistry. 2014. 857647. 10.1155/2014/857647.

Munch R, Barringer SA. Deodorization of garlic breath volatiles by food and food components. J Food Sci. 2014 Apr;79(4):C526-33. doi: 10.1111/1750-3841.12394. Epub 2014 Mar 4. PMID: 24592995.

Porter SR, Scully C. Oral malodour (halitosis). BMJ (Clinical research ed.). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1570844/. Published September 23, 2006.

Shanbhag VKL. Oil pulling for maintaining oral hygiene – A review. Journal of traditional and complementary medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5198813/. Published June 6, 2016.

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