In the modern healthcare system, we tend to view oral health and overall health separately, as if the two are completely unrelated. But research is starting to prove what I’ve known to be true for many, many years about the mouth-body connection.
Essentially, what happens in the mouth happens in the body.
If you’ve ever thought that gum disease or multiple cavities were concerns that start and end in the mouth, keep reading. In this article, I unpack the truth about the mouth-body connection and reveal six key ways that oral health impacts everything from heart to respiratory health.
I also provide tips on how to improve and maintain your oral and dental health in an effort prevent some of these common conditions.
Why is the Mouth-Body Connection So Important?
More than leading to bad breath or tooth decay, medical practitioners and scientists are starting to realize that poor oral health can impact every other part of the body and contribute to seemingly unconnected illnesses.
Much of this association is linked to the mouth’s natural levels of bacteria—also called the oral microbiome—which I’ve written about extensively.  When the oral microbiome is properly balanced, the good bacteria are able to keep the harmful bacteria at bay.
If, however, the bad bacteria are allowed to proliferate, they can cause cavities, bad breath, gum disease, and other oral issues. What’s more, these bacteria can also travel to other parts of the body—via the mouth-body connection—and wreak havoc there, as well.
Signs of Poor Oral Health
I can’t stress enough the importance of maintaining a well-balanced oral microbiome. An overgrowth of bad bacteria can trigger many conditions, and one of the most common is gum infection or disease. Signs of this condition can include swollen or puffy gums, bleeding gums, and/or gum recession.
The CDC reports that 47 percent of people over the age of 30 have periodontal disease, and that number increases with age, with nearly 70 percent of adults over 65 having periodontitis.  That’s a big deal, as periodontal disease can cause tooth loss, and some studies have suggested that the bacteria can travel and affect other organs like the heart and lungs. 
One study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention suggested that women with periodontal disease are 14 percent more likely to develop cancer—which, of course, is just one of many examples of the mouth-body connection. 
But periodontitis isn’t the only sign of poor oral health that you should be aware of.
If you feel a sudden, increased sensitivity to hot and cold, it could be a sign of a dental abscess, which is an infection near the root of the tooth that may require a root canal to treat.  Fever, tender lymph nodes, an excruciating toothache, and facial swelling can also be signs that it’s time to get immediate care, as abscesses can be life-threatening.
Additionally, if you have sores in the mouth that aren’t healing, that’s a sure sign of poor oral health that can also signal diabetes or even cancer. (Ear pain, hoarseness, a swollen jaw, numbness in the tongue, trouble swallowing, or trouble moving the jaw are other seemingly benign symptoms that can also be signs of oral cancer. )
However, these extreme markers of poor oral health aren’t the only reason you should see your dentist. In fact, less serious issues (like bad breath) can be a sign that your microbiome is taking a nosedive into unhealthy territory, even if cavities and gum disease haven’t started to manifest.
You should also talk to your dentist when you first notice any of the symptoms listed below, as it’s easier to be proactive than it is to try to reverse decay and/or disease.
Other signs of poor oral health:
- Bad taste that won’t go away
- Painful chewing
- Loose teeth
- Sensitive teeth
- Gums that have pulled away from your teeth
- Any change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite
- Any change in the fit of partial dentures
The Mouth-Body Connection at Work: 6 Ways Poor Oral Health Impacts Overall Health
Now that we’ve identified some signs of bacterial overgrowth and an imbalanced oral microbiome, let’s take a closer look at how the mouth-body connection leads to consequences beyond the oral cavity.
1. Heart disease: While gum disease has long been considered a risk factor for heart disease, the CDC believes the two conditions may actually be co-morbidities—meaning they both happen as parallel illnesses in the same person—but may not have a casual relationship.  On the other hand, other experts still believe there is a connection between periodontitis and the development of heart disease, primarily because oral bacteria has been found in the arterial plaque in the heart of some patients. 
2. Gut problems: A 2017 study in Science found that when certain types of oral Klebsiella bacteria were ingested by mice, they could lead to inflammatory diseases of the intestines, like ulcerative colitis. 
To be clear, this bacteria is a normal, common bacteria in the mouth, but it seems to wreak havoc in some people. The researchers speculate that in most people, the bacteria passes through without a problem, but in patients with a predisposed susceptibility, the bacteria reproduces unhealthily. The study also pinpointed that patients with gut health issues seem to have more of this bacteria than healthy patients.
3. Pre-term birth: Several studies have suggested that periodontal disease could be a risk factor for pre-term birth because the inflammation associated with periodontal disease triggers an immune response in pregnant women. 
This causal relationship is likely exacerbated by the fact that many pregnant women mistakenly believe that dental care during pregnancy is dangerous, which can lead to them putting off treatment. Additionally, many states don’t offer dental care as part of maternal care for low-income women.
4. Dementia: A small study of the brains of 10 deceased dementia patients found a specific gum disease bacteria, Porphyromonas gingivalis, in four of the brains.  This has prompted researchers to wonder whether regular exposure to gum disease bacteria could contribute to dementia. However, the study was small and more research needs to be done in order to better understand the relationship between the bacteria and the disease.
5. Diabetes: Fighting infections of any kind makes it harder for the body to keep blood sugar under control. That’s because, during an illness, the liver releases more glucose to give the body the energy to fight back, and at the same time, stress hormones make cells more insulin resistant.  This combination can make blood sugar rise.
Since gum disease is an infection of the gums, this same process can occur in those suffering from periodontitis. And the relationship seems reciprocal: people with poor blood sugar control also get more gum disease.
6. Respiratory infections: One of the most significant displays of the mouth-body connection is the impact that oral bacteria has on the respiratory system. Indeed, numerous studies have found possible links between poor oral health and respiratory diseases.
One study focused on seriously ill patients who were on ventilators in the hospital. When doctors killed the oral bacteria in these patients with a powerful mouthwash, their risk of pneumonia dropped. 
While I am not a proponent of using conventional mouthwashes (because those “strong” ingredients can kill beneficial bacteria along with the bad guys), this is confirmation that the health of a patient’s mouth could have a major impact on his risk of respiratory infection, particularly when it comes to hospitalized patients.
In 2003, Frank Scannapeico, DMD, PhD, gave a presentation at the CDC’s Chronic Periodontal Infections Conference and argued that even small improvements in oral health could have a noticeable impact on pneumonia patients.  He reported that the mouth—particularly the plaque around patient’s teeth—often harbors bacteria that could be breathed in by the patient and infect their airways.
Again, we should not be routinely killing off the bacteria in our mouths with a powerful mouthwash.—but keeping our mouths healthy and free of plaque might be a boost for our respiratory health, in addition to our oral health. In fact, hospitals have been having success fighting pneumonia simply with thorough brushing and flossing.
Tips for Improving Your Own Mouth-Body Connection
As you can see, maintaining optimal oral health can positively impact your whole body. Here are a few easy tips for taking care of your teeth and gums that can minimize any harmful consequences of the mouth-body connection on your overall health:
Eat a remineralizing diet
A healthy diet is the most important major factor in improving your oral health, and it can also help you remineralize, or reverse, existing cavities, while preventing the development of future decay.
The best diet for oral and dental health includes antioxidant-heavy foods like berries and dark leafy greens; omega-3-rich foods like salmon and walnuts; and healthy sources of vitamin K2, like grass-fed and grass-finished beef.
Anti-inflammatory spices like ginger, garlic, and turmeric are good additions, and it’s also important to avoid grains, sugars, and processed carbohydrates that can feed bad bacteria in the mouth.
Take beneficial supplements
On top of improving your diet, taking supplements, like pre- and probiotics, vitamin K2, and mineral including magnesium, can help to maintain the healthy bacteria levels in your mouth while also supporting the remineralization process. Omega-3 supplements are also a good addition if you’re not getting enough healthy fats in your diet.
Develop a good oral hygiene routine
Floss daily, hugging the tooth with the floss in a C-shape, and getting both sides of the gum line between the tooth. And be sure to get beneath the gum line, as this is where your toothbrush can’t reach.
It’s also important to brush, but make sure not to brush too hard. The proper way to brush your teeth is to gently press the brush against the teeth and wiggle—not to make a sawing motion across the teeth and gums, which is how most people brush.
Finally, I recommend using a tongue scraper, which helps remove all kinds of gunk from the surface of the tongue, including food debris, bacteria, yeast, and dead cells. This may be a natural way of helping to reset the oral micriobiome.
Use healthy dental hygiene products
Certain toothpastes and mouthwashes can actually be harmful to the oral microbiome because they destroy healthy bacteria along with the bad bacteria.
Additionally, alcohol, a common ingredient in mouthwashes, can make the bad breath that it claims to improve even worse. That’s because it dries out the mouth, which can disrupt the mouth’s pH and the balance of the oral microbiome—both of which can cause bad breath.
Keep an eye out for other problematic ingredients, such as chlorine dioxide, chlorhexidine, cocamidopropyl betaine, parabens, poloxamer 407, formaldehyde, and saccharin. You may even want to try making your own DIY toothpaste.
Improve your sleep
Not getting enough sleep can increase stress and inflammation in the body, including inflammation in the mouth.
Poor sleep can, in itself, also be a sign of oral health problems, so be sure to talk to your dentist if you’re having trouble with snoring or teeth grinding. Mouth taping, which is exactly what it sounds like, helps to encourage you to breathe through your nose at night—which keeps the mouth from drying out and keeps good bacteria in the mouth happy—and is a simple but effective method to reduce snoring and improve oral health.
In case you still believed that keeping your mouth healthy was just a matter of having sparkling pearly whites, I hope this article has clarified the reality of the mouth-body connection for you. When you care for your mouth, you are caring for your whole body, so it’s worth the time and energy it takes to practice good dental hygiene, eat the proper diet, and keep your oral microbiome in balance.Read Next: 7 Benefits of Oral Probiotics—And How to Choose the Right One