Good nutrition and healthy habits are lifestyle choices. The mouth is our gateway to the rest of the body, a pathway for everything that passes through it. Sometimes pathogens and toxins slip through the body’s many defense mechanisms and hang around. When you brush, they can enter the bloodstream. Good oral hygiene and proper breathing are essential components of maintaining a healthy balance in the mouth.
You may have heard me referring to the mouth as the window to the rest of the body. Medical and dental professionals have been finding increasing evidence confirming how much the health of our mouths impacts the health of the rest of our bodies. This is the mouth-body connection, also known as the oral-systemic link.
When I graduated in 1988 from Dental Hygiene school, I was offered a Cancer fellowship at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. I worked closely with Cancer Doctors to discuss the oral implications of hygiene habits during Cancer treatment. I remember one day talking to a patient about Chemo and dry Mouth and what he could do to help prevent cavities. The Doctor pulled me aside and said I am trying to save his life. He can worry about his mouth after treatment. I was shocked and asked if he did not want me to talk to patients about oral health. Why was I there? He said you are here to observe nothing more. I never spoke another word for the rest of my time there. I was young and very taken aback by his reaction. Even back then, I did not understand why we were not treating the whole body. Why do We treat the mouth separately? After all, they are connected.
Fast forward 30 years later, after I had cancer, and still nothing was mentioned about my oral health by my Cancer Doctor. Even though we now know the connection, there is no mention of my mouth, what could happen, and what I may want to do about my mouth. Why should I be surprised? We are still treating our mouths separate from our bodies. Some of us are making headway in educating about this crucial connection.
Did you know that dental exams are often where diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and Crohn’s disease first show signs and are detected? Many of the early symptoms of these diseases appear first in the mouth. It has been found that periodontal disease is connected with many other illnesses that affect the rest of the body. When a patient has open heart surgery now, they are required to have a dental exam and get clearance that their mouth is healthy before they have surgery. That is how important it is. Yet how much are you hearing about it?
Much like the blood-brain barrier, which keeps toxins in the blood from reaching our brains, there is also a sort of barrier that protects our bloodstream from the bacteria in our mouths. Gum disease can cause this barrier to break down, which can lead to issues that affect more than just our teeth and gums.
The exact nature of these links between overall health and oral health is still being researched. Still, the current belief is that inflammation plays a significant role in the oral-systemic connection. Evidence shows that treatment of the inflammation caused by periodontal disease can help with the treatment of other inflammatory conditions in the body. Diabetes is a major example of this.
HERE ARE SOME OF THE DISEASES WITH STRONG ORAL CONNECTIONS?
The American Academy of Periodontology reported that people with gum disease have an increased chance of developing various types of cancer. Specifically:
- Pancreatic cancer – 54% increased chance
- Kidney cancer – 49% increased chance
- Blood cancers – 30% increased chance
It’s possible to aspirate (breathe in) bacteria from our mouths into our lungs. The same bacteria found in periodontal disease can cause respiratory conditions such as pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia is common among nursing home patients mostly because Oral care is nonexistent in these facilities.
HEART DISEASE AND STROKE
It’s been found that conditions such as periodontal disease, which causes chronic inflammation, have ties to conditions like stroke and heart disease and can increase their likelihood of happening.
Diabetes and periodontal disease have been found to affect one another, with diabetes making gum disease worse and gum disease making it harder to control diabetes. If your sugar is under control, your gums will follow and vice versa.
OTHER DISEASES WITH CONNECTIONS TO ORAL HEALTH?
The following have all shown some degree of connection with oral health:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Breast and prostate cancer
- Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Pregnancy issues
- Weight gain
- Kidney disease
With the links between all of these health conditions and oral health becoming increasingly clear, it should be obvious why it is important to deal with issues like gum disease as soon as possible. If you have concerns about gum disease, contact us to schedule a consultation with your dentist.
Your mouth is the portal into Your Body.
How can your mouth affect your body? To start, you need to understand what happens in your Mouth—plaque and bacteria buildup on teeth. The longer the bacteria go undisturbed, the more they multiply. When you eat or drink, you feed the bacteria, creating an acid-making both your teeth and gums susceptible to infection. The immune system intervenes to attack the bacterial infection to keep the gums from inflaming and bleeding. If the infection is allowed to continue without disruption, the inflammation continues.
Over time, the inflammation and the byproducts eat away at the teeth, gums, and bone structure. Dental disease is the result of cavities, gingivitis, and periodontitis. In an early stage, it is entirely reversible. Yes, cavities are a disease. In fact, cavities are the # 1 preventable childhood disease. This is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about mouth health awareness. It is not inevitable kids will get cavities. It is our choices and habits that determine our fate.
Gingivitis is inflammation of the gums. In its early stage, 100% reversible if overlooked, it progresses to the middle to late stages called periodontitis, also known as gum disease.
Advanced gum disease damages the bone that supports teeth and is one of the leading causes of tooth loss in adults. Increased inflammation causes the gums to bleed and create deeper pockets between the teeth and gums. The pockets trap plaque, bacteria, and food debris, leading to infection, recession, and even abscesses.
Inflammation can also add to underlying problems in the rest of the body. Chronic inflammation in your mouth that causes bleeding allows the bacteria in your mouth to travel in the blood to the rest of the body. Now you not only have inflammation in your mouth, but it has also spread. Your immune system has to work harder and in more than one place in the body. So instead of having a large group of white blood cells fighting in one single location, it is forced to send fewer cells to multiple locations in the body. Allowing the bacteria to wreak havoc, multiply and spread.
Dental infections are silent; you do not feel them until they advance to a later stage. It can spread to the face, bloodstream, heart, liver, and even kidneys. Suppose you have bleeding gums, toothaches, fever, earache, or pain in your jaw or shoulders. In that case, you should see a professional, your physician, dentist, or periodontist for treatment as soon as possible before you get a toothache or, worse, a systemic infection.
You can choose many healthy lifestyle habits to maintain good oral hygiene and reduce your risk of diseases.
- Brush your teeth and tongue at least twice per day to disrupt the plaque and bacteria
- Ask your dentist to demonstrate the correct technique for brushing.
- Floss or use a water flosser between your teeth and gums once daily.
- Stop smoking or chewing tobacco.
- Drink more water.
- Eat a diet high in vegetables, high-fiber foods, fruits low in sugar, and vegetable-based proteins.
- Be mindful of early signs of gum disease, such as bleeding gums and bad breath.
- Maintain healthy levels of blood sugar, especially if you have diabetes.
- See a dentist consistently for checkups. Let your dentist know if you have any of these symptoms.
Daily habits and consistent home care can prevent and even reverse the early stages of gum disease, known as gingivitis. If your dental professional says you have gingivitis, ask where and have them show you what tools they would recommend and the proper technique of how to use them. It is usually not the entire mouth in the early stages, and you can have it around one tooth or several areas in the mouth. For most people, it is the back teeth in hard-to-reach places or the front teeth for chronic m0uth breathing. I see gingivitis on the front six teeth with the extended mask-wearing in hundreds of patients. Many people can reverse it at home if they spend enough time or use the proper brushing technique (we recommend two minutes two times a day brushing the teeth, along the gum line and tongue).
Left untreated, gingivitis can turn into periodontal disease. The gums become more inflamed around the tooth, creating a pocket that gradually gets deeper and harder for you to clean. Eventually, the infection and inflammation can cause the tooth to loosen and abscess or fall out, depending on how long you ignore the signs and symptoms. The majority of people are indifferent about mouth health until they have pain. This is what creates the reality that dentistry is expensive. If you never change the oil in your car and your engine freezes, it would be costly to fix. Going to the dentist is equivalent to the maintenance you would have done on your vehicle to keep it in good running condition.
What’s the approach?
Research shows a connection between gum disease and other diseases in the body. Bacteria buildup and inflammation in the oral cavity eventually contribute to an imbalance in sugar levels in the body and lead to a number of other symptoms such as bleeding gums, narrowing, and blockage of blood vessels. More research is needed to understand this connection better. Yet it is there. We have seen more information than ever now that we consistently wear masks for over a year. I have been a dental hygienist for over 30 years. I have watched the progression of diseases in patients’ mouths that we could not get under control. 80% of the patients I have seen long-term with chronic gum disease have an underlying systemic condition that sometimes takes 5-10 years to diagnose. I watched my Uncle lose teeth for ten years before being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. I ignored the signs and symptoms, explaining them, chalking it up to lack of sleep or stress until my gums started to bleed.
Bleeding gums is an early warning sign something is wrong in the body. I genuinely believe everything starts with the nose and the mouth.
The # 1 thing your body needs to survive is oxygen
Every part of your body needs oxygen to survive.
Functions of the body like digesting your food, moving your muscles to brush your teeth, or even just thinking to need oxygen. For this process to happen, a gas called carbon dioxide is produced as a waste product. The job of your nose and lungs is to provide your body with the oxygen it needs to get rid of the gas waste, carbon dioxide.
The nose is lined with hairs and mucus membranes; to help filter the air you breathe in, block dirt and dust, warm, moisturize, and filter air entering the body before it reaches the lungs. The air is moistened but not filtered when you breathe in through your mouth or oral cavity.
Your brain constantly gets signals from your body that detect the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood.
Your brain will send signals to the muscles involved in breathing and adjust your breathing depending on how active you are. We have the ability to breathe through our mouths. That does mean we should. Your mouth is not your optimal route for breathing – that job belongs to the nose. It’s important to establish nasal breathing as soon as possible at any stage of life. Nasal breathing has important sensory and neurological functions that provide 18% more oxygen to your body, and it’s the foundation of all proper breathing patterns.
Mouth breathing, on the other hand, contributes to many structural and functional problems and contributes to an avalanche of health issues.
Mouth breathers also need to ensure that they do not have other forms of dysfunctional breathing.
Even when mouth breathing is corrected, postural and oral muscle functional issues can remain and need to be addressed with Oral Myofunctional Therapy. An assessment will help to determine if you need further treatment.
It may also be necessary to see a dentist or ear, nose, and throat physician to correct structural issues and optimize the airway size.
I have only touched on the surface of how your mouth is connected to the health of your body.
I see patients every day that are afraid to go to the dentist, so they put it off until they can’t put it off any longer. Then they say they are embarrassed they wanted so long. We do not judge. We treat you where you are at. Everyone has a story,y and honestly if you put it off, it is not your priority.
Sometimes, it is easier to keep hurting when we are Hurting than do something about it.
It is never just one thing that causes inflammation in the mouth and body. Knowing the health of your mouth, where you are missing, what tools are best for you to control the disease and disrupt the plaque and bacteria. Paying attention to your breathing is the first of many steps you can take to create healthy habits that maintain the health of your mouth and the health of your body.
You only get one body. Most diseases don’t happen overnight so they won’t get fixed overnight either. It would be best if you decided to put yourself first and take ownership of your health, starting with your mouth.
Regardless of the date, no content on this site should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your Doctor or another qualified clinician.