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How to banish bad breath

Been smelling your own breath lately with all the mask-wearing? 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, 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.

There are several potential causes of bad breath. Commonly, it’s simply due 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. Sulfur compounds in these foods are particularly high, and when chewing, the bacteria in your saliva release these sulfur compounds from your food.

The compounds quickly turn gaseous and, once mixed with the air, exit the mouth via your breath.

Tobacco, coffee and alcohol may also perform this foul-smelling trick. It varies, but you may notice a change in breath odor for several hours.

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.

A functional medicine nurse practitioner 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 take up residence under the tongue, in plaque and in the deep creases between our teeth and gums, where they interact with each other and can give rise to halitosis.

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 sulfur compounds released even more.

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.

Oral dryness can be caused by dehydration, mouth breathing (often caused by an obstruction of the sinuses and nasal cavity) or infected salivary glands. Many medications also have a dry mouth listed among their side effects.

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.

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.

In the case of bad breath, this underlying immune dysfunction alters the balance between your immune system and oral microbes. Candida and other microbes multiply, causing volatile sulfur compounds and methyl mercaptan (another player in the malodour scene) to be produced and released.

6. You may have ear, nose or 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 sulfur 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.

But don’t worry. Your functional medicine nurse practitioner 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.

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.


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.

Artificial food dyes make mouthwash look good on a shelf, but these components can be detrimental. All nine FDA-approved artificial food dyes are linked to various health concerns, ranging from sensitivities 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.

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.

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.

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 functional medicine nurse practitioner for the right testing and to tailor a health plan specifically for you. n

Randi Mann, WHNP-BC, NCMP, APNP, is a woman’s hormone expert and the owner of Wise Woman Wellness LLC, an innovative wellness and hormone care center at 1480 Swan Road, De Pere. Mann is the author of the eBook: A Guide to Gluten and Going Gluten Free. She is a board certified Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner and NAMS Certified Menopause Practitioner, one of a handful in Wisconsin and less than 1600 worldwide to achieve this distinction. She combines the best of conventional, functional and integrative medicine to help women with female, thyroid and adrenal hormone issues to live healthier, more abundant, joy-filled lives using a blend of compassion, cutting edge science, practical guidance and humor. Contact her at 920-339-5252 or via the Internet at Join the introductory virtual seminar, “End Hormone Havoc – Crazy Hormones Cause Fatigue, Weight Gain and Brain Fog and How to Fix Them!”, offered monthly, to learn about specialized thyroid, adrenal and female hormone testing and customized, bioidentical hormone treatments to achieve lifelong optimal hormone balance, increased vitality and longevity.

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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.

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Shanbhag VKL. Oil pulling for maintaining oral hygiene – A review. Journal of traditional and complementary medicine. Published June 6, 2016.

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