The Link Between Oral Health and Overall Health
Next time you visit your dentist, you won’t just be getting your teeth cleaned or getting a filling. You’ll be taking an important step towards better health for your whole body.
It’s no secret that your oral health affects your overall health (and vice versa), but the connection is deeper than many people realize. In 2000, the US Surgeon General went as far as to call the mouth a “mirror” of health and disease in the body.
Good dental health can reduce your risk of life-threatening illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. It could even lead to a safer pregnancy.
So what can you do? How can you maximize your dental and overall health? I’ll tell you in this post!
What’s the Connection?
Our mouths are full of bacteria - some are harmless, and some are disease-causing. If your oral health is good, these bacteria are nothing to worry about, but without good oral hygiene, “bad bacteria” can cause serious problems like tooth decay and gum disease. There is also some evidence to suggest that these bacteria (or the biologic effects of our immune systems fighting these bacteria) can travel to other parts of our bodies to contribute to other chronic diseases.
Researchers still don’t know the full extent of the mouth-body connection, but there are two prominent theories:
First, when you have an infection (gum disease, for example) your body’s immune system goes into action to fight the infection. When fighting gum disease, your immune system releases enzymes that can actually further damage your gum tissue and the bone supporting your teeth. But it also produces a ton of other chemicals in the body, including some that researchers believe can contribute to heart disease and other health issues.
Second, we know bacteria can travel throughout the body. (That’s why appendicitis is so dangerous -- if the appendix bursts, all that bacteria gets released into the body.) In a similar way, it’s possible for oral bacteria to travel and infect other tissues throughout your body, including your heart, liver, and gut. Mouth bacteria has been found in respiratory fluid cultures taken from nursing home patients with pneumonia and other respiratory infections.
What Can Good Oral Health Do for Your Overall Health?
Help Manage Diabetes
People with diabetes have difficulty processing sugar due to a lack of a hormone called insulin, which converts sugar into energy. Bacteria-related inflammation in the mouth can make it even harder for the insulin in your body to do its job, making diabetes even more difficult to manage.
Unfortunately, the problem is a two-way street. High blood sugar itself is a risk factor for gum disease and other oral infections - in fact, periodontal disease is considered by physicians to be a major complication of diabetes. The link between gum disease and diabetes can quickly turn into a vicious cycle. The good news is that getting one under control can greatly improve the other.
That’s one good reason to get your teeth and gums healthy ASAP!
Lower Your Risk for Heart Disease
91% of patients with heart disease also have periodontitis (gum disease).
Gum disease and heart disease have many of the same risk factors, including smoking, obesity, and an unhealthy diet. Researchers also believe that inflammation in the mouth may increase inflammation in the blood vessels, which puts you at a higher risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Contribute to a Healthy Pregnancy
Gum disease in mothers has been linked to premature birth and low birthweight babies. The link is not as strong as the one between gum disease and other diseases, but it still could be a potential risk.
Hormonal changes during pregnancy can put pregnant women at an increased risk for gum disease. Did you know about half of pregnant women experience it?
If you’re pregnant, seeing your dentist and maintaining good oral health is an important step in preparing for a safe, healthy pregnancy.
The Bottom Line?
Your mouth and body are connected. Disease and inflammation in one can affect the other.
We still need to see more research to determine exactly how strong the links are between oral health and other diseases, and poor oral health may also trigger other conditions we’re not aware of yet.
One thing is clear, though: Good oral health is good for your whole body.
What to Do
So, now that you know some of the risks of bad oral health, what should you do to make sure you’re doing everything you can to stay healthy?
Let’s start at the beginning:
If it’s been a while, visit your dentist. He or she can tell you how healthy your mouth really is, identify any problems, and talk you through the steps for fixing them. If you’d like to make an appointment with me, click here.
Don’t wait. If you have cavities, gum disease, or other issues (or you think you might), get them taken care of quickly. All these conditions can worsen over time, so it’s important to take action early.
Brush and floss properly. I recommend brushing twice and flossing once each day. It’s one of the easiest ways to maintain your health.
Get regular professional cleanings. A thorough dental cleaning every six months gets rid off the plaque and tartar you can’t remove at home. It also helps us diagnose more serious problems early.
Quit smoking. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but smoking is as detrimental to your oral health as it is to your overall health. Quitting isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.
Not sure which dental products to use? Want to learn more about how to combat gingivitis during pregnancy? Here’s my list of resources you can refer to as you work towards better oral health: