You may not think of your mouth when you think about being ‘healthy’; many times we equate our teeth and mouth as we do to hair and nails. We may seek to keep them looking nice but don’t stop to consider the connection with the overall health of our bodies.
It’s been known for quite some time that a connection exists between disease of the mouth and gums and disease in the entire body. In this week’s column, we will explore this connection and strategies to minimize these risks. Three ways diseases of the teeth and mouth can affect the body are infection, inflammation and nutrition.
Infection, for the sake of this article, is the acute (or urgent) swelling or pain associated with a buildup of bacteria from the teeth or gums. This is obviously the most urgent and serious of the disease processes to be described. Bacteria from an infected tooth or gums multiply until they spread somewhere. Depending on the location of infection in the mouth it can spread to the bloodstream, to other areas such as the brain or find a path to drain into the mouth. If left unchecked, infection can lead to more than just pain but also to the extreme, death.
Inflammation is the chronic response to a low grade infection. Typically in the mouth this is associated with gingivitis and periodontitis, otherwise known as gum disease. When bacteria and debris buildup below the gumline, the body responds by sending cells to protect itself. These cells cause the gums to become red and inflamed and also in more advanced stages cause the bone to recede away from the infection. The result can be loose teeth and a source of chronic infection and inflammation that affects the entire body. A way to think of it is to consider how much surface area the gums directly around the teeth encompass. The amount of red, inflamed and infected tissue around the teeth in someone with gum disease is equal to having the entire palm of your hand red and inflamed. Many times people will ignore what they can’t see. However, if they would think about what they would do if their palm was in the same condition, chances are they wouldn’t ignore it so quickly.
So what is the big deal with inflammation? In the past 20 years the connection between the inflammatory process in the mouth and to overall health has become known. A limited list of the connection includes:
Alzheimer’s and dementia
Cardiovascular disease including stroke, heart attack, and thickening of the arteries
Low birthweight and premature birth
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
The studies vary as to how the tight of a connection there is in relation between the conditions listed above and the mouth. But the one agreement is that a healthy mouth is ideal and can help decrease the risk of some of the conditions.
The final category to discuss is nutrition as it relates to the mouth and overall health. This is often not considered by many people who consider teeth optional and choose to extract teeth when they have problems and consider dentures a good alternative. A phrase we like to use is that dentures are not a replacement for teeth, but a replacement for no teeth. Even with the best made denture, a person with good bone support can only chew about one tenth as well as someone with natural teeth. So what? The risk is someone who is missing one tooth, several teeth, or all teeth will not be able to eat many chewy, hard, or stringy foods such as types of meat and vegetables. A softer diet typically is not as well rounded in nutrients which can lead to a decrease in overall health.
Now that you are aware of the problems, what should you do about it? The mouth is amazing in design – the tissues around the tooth are like a seal that prevents bacteria from entering the blood stream. The key is to prevent that seal from being broken which can happen through bacteria attacking the tissue. Bacteria can be good or bad for us. Typically the first bacteria to settle in our mouths are good, but if the number of bacteria is not controlled, then the bad bacteria can settle in. Once the bad bacteria become settled, it is typically a lifetime battle to minimize the damage. Therefore, here are a few tips to help win the battle:
Brush and floss: Yes, it sounds so simple, yet many don’t do it, not enough or not well enough. At a minimum you should brush two times per day for two minutes and floss once. It is ideal if you can brush after every meal and floss at least once per day or twice if you have crowded teeth, catch food easily or are prone to cavities. Also, just doing it isn’t enough – you should brush around all the surfaces of the teeth paying attention to hard to reach areas and also gently brush your gums and tongue.
Limit calories between meals: The bacteria in your mouth ingest sugars every time you do which allows them to multiply and damage your teeth and gums. After you eat or drink the bacteria have 20-30 minutes that they can be very active in causing damage. If you keep sugars to meal times then the bacteria only have a limited time to do damage. If they are getting fed throughout the day, then the damage becomes much more likely.
Eat healthy foods: Bacteria can only digest the smallest types of sugars easily. Therefore refined sugars that are in many of our foods today are helping the bacteria in your mouth.
Don’t smoke or vape: Smoking causes the blood vessels in the mouth to contract and decreases blood flow. The body is amazing in its ability to fight off infection at the early stages. However, with decreased blood flow, the incidence of gum disease is greatly increased in smokers.
Visit the dentist and dental hygienist regularly: The goal is to catch cavities and gum disease early. Gum disease causes bone loss which doesn’t come back and can only be maintained at its current level. Therefore, regular exams and cleanings can limit the risk and damage. Also, catching cavities in the early stages is always preferable. A small filling has less risk of side effects such as pain or sensitivity. Also, dentistry can get expensive, but one way to minimize that expense is to catch problems early. A small filling will cost one tenth as much as it would if it progresses to a root canal and crown.
In summary, there is a link between the mouth and the body and there are many different disorders that have been found to have that link. In light of these risks, you can implement several simple strategies to help minimize your risk.