There may be another reason to watch your mouth when you drink alcohol. As you may have found out the hard way, alcohol can coax some embarrassing or inappropriate information out of your mouth. But, a study just published in the journal Microbiome gives another reason, in fact, millions of reasons, why you may want to consider how drinking could affect your mouth.
The reasons are the city part of your mouth. That is, your mouth includes a city of millions of bacteria known as the oral microbiome. Like a city, the oral microbiome is busy every day performing a variety of functions, many of which scientists are still trying to decipher. Moreover, as with most cities, this city can have the good (bacteria such as Lactobacillales bacteria that help protect your gums) and the bad (bacteria such as certain Actinomyces, Bacteroidales, and Neisseria species that can cause diseases such as infections or cancer). Depending on how much good and bad your mouth has, your mouth may be more like Metropolis and National City or more like Gotham City.
For the study, a team of researchers from New York University (NYU) sought to determine how alcohol drinking habits may affect this city. Therefore, they studied spit. They checked the bacteria in the swish and spit samples from 1044 healthy adults who were between the ages of 55 and 87 years old and from the American Cancer Society (ACS) Cancer Prevention Study II (CPS-II) Nutrition and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial (PLCO) cohorts. The study participants also answered questions about their alcohol drinking levels (non-drinker, moderate drinker, or heavy drinker) and their typical alcoholic beverages (liquor, beer, or wine).
What did they find? Well, drinkers tended to have less of the good (Lactobacillales) and more of the bad (e.g., Bacteroidales, Actinomyces, and Neisseria species) bacteria. In other words, drinking may bring out the punks in your mouth. In fact, heavy drinkers had fewer Lactobacillales than moderate drinkers.
Does this mean that drinking alcohol will necessarily give you a dirty mouth in more ways than one? It’s not clear yet. Keep in mind that a study like this can only show associations and not cause and effect. People who drink alcohol could also have other habits that may affect their oral microbiomes. For example, think of some of the garbage that you may be more likely to eat when you are drunk. Also, could some drinkers be more likely to smoke, take medications, or have certain sexual practices (e.g., as I wrote previously for Forbes, oral sex has been spreading super gonorrhea, which is just super) that could, in turn, affect what’s in their mouths? Lots of things could be mediating or confounding the results.
Nonetheless, alcohol isn’t just some inactive substance. That’s why you may drink alcohol. Because it does stuff. So there is the distinct possibility that alcohol can selectively affect the bacteria in your trap. As with many things in life, diversity in the oral microbiome may be beneficial. Different bacteria may perform different functions for your mouth. Diversity in your mouth may maintain a competitive balance among the different microbes. However, if something like alcohol can wipe out various species of bacteria, fewer species that happen to be able to handle alcohol may begin to dominate. Unfortunately, such species often aren’t good species.
This Microbiome study alone is not proof of what specifically happens when you put something with greater than zero proof in your mouth. More studies are needed. Call this another way that you don’t quite know what’s going on when you drink.