You know that old saying, “Put your money where your mouth is”? In dentistry, that isn’t just a saying. There really is an oral and systemic health connection. Most people, when they go to the dentist, expect that they are just there for cleanings, exams, and other oral care. This is not necessarily the case. Your regular dental exams can also be a screening for your overall health. You might be saying, “What? How is that possible?” or “How does oral health impact general health?” It has to do with systemic (meaning affecting the whole body or multiple organs — your entire “system,” basically) issues of the body. What this means is your mouth can tell us about issues that may be affecting other parts of your body.
Let’s take inflammation as an example. When a dentist is examining you and they see inflamed gums, they know it could be an indicator of inflammation somewhere else in the body. Inflammation is an indicator that something is not right somewhere.
You should know that chronic inflammation in the body can eventually lead to a variety of serious issues, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s, just to name a few. There are many inflammatory diseases that we characterized by inflammation as a primary symptom. Some of these include Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, hepatitis, celiac disease, and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, vasculitis, Lyme disease and lupus. This is one of the reasons we take a health history in our dental office. Your health history can alert us to medical conditions or medications that can affect your dental health.
We covered in our recent blog on periodontal disease the process of inflamed gums moving into gum disease. Remember that when periodontal pockets become deeper, the bacteria works its way deeper into the gums deeper, and this bacteria can make its way into other parts of the body and cause issues there. This oral and systemic health connection is yet another reason why it is important to stay on top of your dental care.
Poor dental health can cause issues in other parts of the body, such as an inflammatory response to inflammation in your gums. Another big factor is how our diet encourages or discourages inflammation. A healthy diet makes food nutrients and vitamins available for our body to function well and heal, but it also discourages chronic inflammation, which in turn makes us much less susceptible to all of the above-mentioned systemic diseases.
Remember, your dentist is trained to recognize these signs, and as a holistic office, we can also offer holistic guidelines to help improve your overall health.
Here is another good reason to take good care of your oral health and the body: Did you know that studies have shown that people who have periodontal disease (also called gum disease and in the early stage, gingivitis) are two to three times as likely to develop coronary artery disease. If a person has an existing heart condition, periodontal disease can aggravate it. Researchers have studied the possible link between gum disease and heart problems. So far, studies show that the inflammation caused by gum disease over a longer duration stresses the body’s ability to maintain a healthy balance. Atherosclerosis is an inflammatory disease, and inflammation is a major factor in related health problems. Atherosclerosis can lead to heart attacks and stroke, and often, other factors can also contribute to those heart risks, such as smoking and poor diet, especially when combined with gum disease. It seems strange to think that when we brush and floss regularly, we are actually helping to keep our heart healthier!
HPV and Oral Cancer
Regular annual medical check-ups are important to maintain our overall health. These check-ups can alert us to issues that can become troublesome or serious if we don’t make efforts to modify what we can. There is at least one strain of HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) that has been linked to oral cancer. HPV can also lead to throat cancer. HPV could be considered a silent menace, as it exists with no symptoms. If you or your loved ones are diagnosed with HPV, it is a good idea to pay close attention to abnormalities in your mouth and be certain an oral cancer screening is occurring at least twice a year. The types of abnormalities to pay attention to are sores or lesions that don’t go away within two weeks anywhere in your mouth or on your lips. These could show up as patches that are reddish or white in color. Also pay attention for any lumps or growths. Oral cancer can show up anywhere in the mouth or throat. Observe gums, cheeks, top, bottom, and sides of the tongue, under the tongue and the roof of the mouth. If you want to see better, you can take a flashlight and shine it in your reflection in the mirror and down your throat to look for abnormalities. Difficulty swallowing, pain in the ears, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck are other possible indications of cancer. People who smoke or chew tobacco and have HPV are even more at risk of oral and throat cancers. If you find something that looks abnormal, you should let your dentist know right away.
Diabetes and Oral Health
It has been shown that diabetes and periodontal disease are linked. People with diabetes are at a much higher risk of developing gum disease, so it is important to always keep an eye on oral health and the body. This is possibly due to diabetics being more prone to infections. Also, the higher the A1c in an individual, the greater the risk of developing periodontitis. Diabetics are about 3 times more likely to develop gum disease than non-diabetics. This includes children and teenagers. The National Institute of Health cites from a controlled study that about 10% of diabetic children have gum and bone loss separation. If it starts this young, imagine how likely they are to end up with bridges and dentures at a very young age. When it comes to children with diabetes, parents should be hyper-vigilant with the care of their children’s teeth. It is likely they may need to see a dentist more often than twice a year to monitor and mitigate the onset of periodontal disease. Many people associate gum disease with adults, not with children. With diabetics especially, this is not the case.
Improving the health of the gums can actually aid in managing diabetes. Managing your diabetes well can also lead to healthier gums, so you can see how closely they are linked, as is shown also by higher levels of A1c being related to your risk of gum disease. For patients with diabetes, it is important to stick to the instructions of a medical care provider, but you also want to take good care of the teeth and see a dentist a minimum of twice a year. Dentists are trained to look at the conditions of the teeth and gums and may recommend that a patient get an annual medical exam if their teeth and gums indicate any underlying issues.
Pregnancy and Oral Health
Another significant oral and systemic health connection can be observed among pregnant women. There is an increased risk for expectant mothers with gum disease to give birth to underweight babies as well as pre-term babies. That being said: consistent, regular oral healthcare should be included as part of the prenatal regimen. Hormone fluctuations during pregnancy make women more at risk of developing periodontal disease during pregnancy. The CDC states that 65-70% of pregnant women have gingivitis (the early stage of periodontal disease). Pregnant women are also at more risk of developing cavities due to changes in the way they eat. After giving birth, the bacteria in the mother’s mouth is passed on to the baby’s mouth, causing an increased risk of the child developing cavities in those tiny teeth. So, continued regular oral care and effort to move to a healthier diet are beneficial to both the mother AND the baby.
There is so much that is not fully known about why some diseases are more prevalent in the presence of gum disease and vice versa. Even with some missing pieces as to the whys, we know that taking good care of your oral health and the body is the best strategy to support your overall wellness.