When you think about getting healthy, you probably don’t think of your oral health first. Let’s face it—a lot of us think of our teeth the same way we think about our nails or hair… just look at all of the whitening kiosks at the shopping mall! We don’t tend to place the same importance on dental health as we do on our medical health.
Even something as “simple” as a cavity is connected to your heart health, microbiome, and even brain health. Teeth are precious organs that are critical to the proper functioning of the whole body. What happens in the mouth, happens in the body.
Just as there is a blood-brain barrier that protects the brain from toxins in the blood, there is a barrier between the gums and teeth and the rest of the body. This barrier breaks down a little bit every time there is inflammation or infection in the mouth, triggering disease and dysfunction in other parts of the body. The mouth is the only place in the body where bone-like structures protrude out of the skin—imagine how hard it would be to prevent an infection if you had a bone sticking out of your forearm!
If 60% of the population had heart disease or diabetes, we would call that unacceptable—and yet 60% of the population has gum disease, triggering illness and disease throughout the rest of the body.
Your oral health has downstream effects in virtually every other system in the body. In this post, we’ll discuss what that connection is and how to optimize your own mouth-body connection.
The Mouth-Body Connection Defined
How does stuff around the teeth and gums actually get to other parts of the body? Surrounding each tooth is a tight girdle of fibers pulling the gums snugly around the neck of the tooth. This tight seal is designed to keep elements out. If they were able to pass through into the systemic tissues from the mouth, the immune system would immediately have its hands full.
In a healthy mouth with no infection, the seal is tight and the pathway between mouth bacteria and the bloodstream is closed. When an infection is present in the gums, the seal is weakened and elements from the outside environment can get past the gums and into the bloodstream.
When something gets past this seal, it’s serious business—think of it like breaking the skin. Things from the outside world are now able to get inside the body, infecting all other systems by way of the bloodstream.
Once you get past that girdle, bacteria get to the rest of the body by:
- Infection. Once in the bloodstream, bacteria from the mouth can travel to virtually any other site in the body.
- Injury. Bacteria in the blood often turn into something else like proteins or exotoxins that can injure tissue even permanently.
- Inflammation. Bacteria get into the bloodstream and the body responds to this invasion with a vigorous immune response, raising your body temperature and producing an inflammatory reaction. If you have gum disease, these bacteria are constantly getting into the blood and causing constant inflammation. Since we age and die of inflammatory diseases, it’s critical to minimize the chronic inflammatory response in the body.
Conditions That Can Be Caused or Complicated by an Oral Infection Like Gum Disease:
- Breast cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Weight gain
- Alzheimer’s and dementia
- Cardiovascular disease including stroke, heart attack, infective endocarditis, and thickening of the arteries
- Low birthweight and premature birth
- Bacterial pneumonia
- Rheumatoid arthritis
It’s Much More Than Brushing and Flossing
When taking care of your oral health, remember this: it’s all about preventing the breakdown of that girdle around the tooth. Avoiding infection means the girdle stays tight and the pathway to the rest of the body stays closed.
Here are my tips:
- Brush after meals and floss. Here’s what to do if you can’t brush in between meals.
- Eat foods that promote remineralization, which is the natural process whereby teeth resist cavities.
- See your dentist regularly. The idea is to catch oral disease in its earliest phases because things like gum disease can’t get better—they can only be arrested in their current state. Seeing your dentist regularly is one of the best forms of prevention.
- Include these superfoods in your diet.
- If you’re pregnant, review these tips.
- Make sure you can clean all teeth in your mouth properly. Areas of crowding as well as wisdom teeth tend to be harder to clean and thus, cause disease at a higher rate.
As you can tell, our teeth have a lot more to do with our overall health than you’d think! But when you see first-hand how your mouth and the rest of your body are connected, making better oral health decisions might come a little easier.
How have you seen the mouth-body connection play out in your life? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
Dr. Mark Burhenne