The concept that oral health and systemic health have a direct connection is certainly not novel. For years researchers have been studying the link between the two, and it seems every day we learn something new that further solidifies the relationship. Yet this fundamental symbiosis seems slow to work its way into the larger public perception. So what are the basics of this link between your mouth and the rest of your body?
The bacteria found in your mouth can be seen as a gateway to the rest of your system. When kept in balance by good oral hygiene, and not affected by other disease, this bacterium is usually healthy and doing exactly what it should be. When poor oral hygiene and other factors lead to periodontal disease, bone loss or tooth loss, the opportunities for harmful bacteria to enter your system increase substantially. Periodontal disease is often the first sign of systemic problems, and will always exacerbate existing conditions. Periodontitis has a direct reciprocal link to the following health problems, among others:
- Cardiovascular Disease – Research tells us that people with periodontal disease are at significantly higher risk for cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, atherosclerosis and stroke. Bacteria from oral infections travel to other systems via the blood stream, resulting in injury and inflammation of the blood vessels. This can lead to the buildup of atherosclerotic plaques and the lessening of available blood flow to the heart.
- Pregnancy Complications – Studies have found that mothers suffering from periodontal disease during pregnancy are up to 7 times more likely to give birth prematurely to underweight babies. This may be the fault of toxins present due to periodontal bacteria affecting the fetus, as well as responses by the maternal immune system to the presence of oral infection.
- Diabetes – High blood sugar levels, as well as high levels of sugar in saliva, are common in people with poorly controlled diabetes. This leads to a dramatically increased risk of caries and periodontal disease. Conversely, research shows that people with periodontal disease have greater difficulty controlling their blood sugar level, and that severe periodontal disease may even cause diabetes in patients who have not been previously diagnosed.
- General Nutrition – On the most basic level, problems in our mouth, especially those that cause us pain, can lead to a reduced or compromised nutrient intake, leading to worsened overall health. Similarly, if our nutritional intake is less than ideal, our oral health suffers, and this can lead to caries, periodontal disease and other dental concerns.
Being aware of the problems that can occur due to an imbalance in the oral health-systemic health relationship isn’t enough. It’s also important to note the preventative benefits of recognizing this connection. Diseases will often manifest in the mouth first, and allowing your dentist a vital first look into what may be going on can save you valuable time. Periodic oral examinations can detect early signs of many diseases, including Osteoporosis, oral cancer, eating disorders such as Anorexia, and even HIV.
So what can you do to support the healthy dynamic between oral and general health? No doubt about it, it’s a two way street. Good oral hygiene, including routine brushing, flossing, and regular visits to the dentist, are critical. So too are a balanced diet, exercise and routine check-ups with your physician. Above all don’t forget: no part of our body or mouth can afford to be ignored!