The mouth-body connection: how oral health impacts your overall health
The medical industry has spent many years convincing us that there is a distinct separation between oral health and overall body health. You might even believe it when your health fund lists dental care under your optional extras cover. You go to the dentist for problems with your teeth, and for everything else, ‘the serious stuff’, you see a doctor.
However, in the last five to ten years, there has been a large increase in interest in the ways that mouth health and body health are actually linked. Now, medical practitioners and research scientists are showing that bad oral health not only gives you tooth decay and smelly breath but can actually be linked to a wide range of other illnesses throughout the body.
Understanding the mouth-body Connection
When it comes to the mouth-body connection, it is important to understand how something beginning in the mouth might end up causing problems in other parts of your body. It all starts because the bacteria that builds up on your teeth through normal processes like eating and drinking, make your gums susceptible to infections.
Your immune system tries to do what it does best and attack the sight of the infection, which can lead to inflammation of the gums. If you don’t bring gum infections under control, the inflammation will continue, and over time it can develop into severe gum disease, also known as periodontal disease. When the gums and bones that hold your teeth in place are slowly eroded, the persistent inflammation can then spread out and wreak havoc in the rest of your body.
The 6 Most Common Ways that your Oral Health can Have an Impact on your Overall Health
While not an all-inclusive list, here are some of the most common ways that your oral health can be linked to other illnesses in your body. Remember though, this is only a few examples, and cases can be different and complex from person to person. Your mouth and teeth might be doing things in your body that you never imagined.
1. Heart Disease
One of the most startling results of recent studies is that gum disease is actually a risk factor for heart disease in some people (https://www.webmd.com/oral-health/features/oral-health-the-mouth-body-conne…). Oral bacteria have been found in the arterial plaque inside the hearts of some patients suffering from heart disease. While it is not clear exactly how common this link is, it is important to note that inflammation of the gums might be a sign of severe cardiac concerns.
2. Gut Problems
Klebsiella bacteria is a naturally occurring bacteria in the mouth that seems to cause gut irritation for some people. A 2017 study in Harvard Magazine (https://harvardmagazine.com/2017/10/microbiome-oral-health) showed that when this same bacteria was consumed by mice, it led to inflammatory intestinal disease.
Most regular people easily process this bacteria, but in some cases, the bacteria reproduces in much higher frequencies and can cause severe gut health problems. If you are suffering from intestinal issues, you might ask your doctor to take a look inside your mouth and see whether this bacteria is the source of your woes.
3. Pre-term birth
While surprising, there are now a number of studies that show that gum disease can be implicated with risks of pre-term birth (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4318095/). This is because when periodontal disease is present in the body, it causes an immune response to be triggered for women during pregnancy. Sometimes, pregnant women put off dental treatment because they think that it might cause some risk to their unborn children, which only heightens risk. Dental care is in fact completely safe throughout pregnancy.
While currently only supported by one study, it has interestingly been found that a number of dementia patients had the same specific gum bacteria: Porphyromonas gingivalis (https://www.webmd.com/oral-health/news/20130731/dental-health-dementia). Thus, researchers have started to investigate further whether there is a direct link between periodontal disease and dementia.
When your body is trying to fight off inflammation and infection, it can’t focus its energy on regulating blood sugar. When you are sick, your liver is actually releasing higher levels of glucose to provide your immune system with the energy it needs to fight illness. For this reason, blood sugar rises. So, when you have gum disease, you might be more susceptible to diabetes. And, if you are already suffering from diabetes you might have more regular flare-ups of gum inflammation (https://www.rd.com/health/conditions/blood-sugar-levels/).
6. Respiratory infections
Oral bacteria is infamous for the problems it causes within the respiratory system. This might be one of the most blatant displays of how the mouth-body connection works because the respiratory systems are one of the key links between your mouth and the rest of your body. In one particular study, doctors found that wiping out oral bacteria with a simple medical mouth wash significantly reduced the risk of pneumonia in patients. (https://www.cdc.gov/OralHealth/archive/conferences/periodontal_infections04….)
The mouth-body connection message
Whether or not oral health will have the same impact on overall body health for everyone, one thing is certainly clear: the mouth and the body are not two separate entities. They are interlinked and oral illness can lead to illnesses, or be connected with illnesses in other parts of your body. Sometimes we don’t take our oral health as seriously as our overall health because we figure that bad breath and tooth decay isn’t going to kill us: however, that isn’t something that should be taken for granted.
The most important thing to remember is that keeping your mouth in good health can actually help you live a happier, healthier and longer life. If you do simple things like brushing your teeth thoroughly twice per day, flossing every day, and visiting your dentist regularly, you can have a positive impact on your health holistically. Don’t put off treating your periodontal disease, or making the next trip to the dentist. Let the mind-body connection guide you, and you will realise that at the end of day, the risks just aren’t worth it!