Sadly, even people who make efforts to keep their bodies healthy by exercising regularly and eating a nutrient-dense diet often neglect one vital aspect: oral health. This is unfortunate, as the health of your mouth, teeth, and gums is more important to overall health than most of us realize. In fact, if problems in the mouth develop, it can lead to health problems throughout the body.
Keys to a Healthy Mouth
Like your gut health, your oral health is due to a wide range of naturally occurring bacteria within the mouth. You want a healthy supply of the harmless and helpful bacteria (aka microflora) while avoiding an overabundance of unhealthy bacteria. It’s all about balance.
Saliva is a key part of the health of the mouth as it is the first stage of digestion and acts to neutralize acids created by bacteria in the mouth. It’s also important for protecting the healthy microflora in the mouth.
In addition, most of what enters the body does so through the mouth, including potentially disease-causing bacteria. The body is designed to help fight off those bacteria, but proper oral hygiene—such as brushing, flossing, regular dental check-ups and cleanings, and possibly dental rinses when recommended—is vital to ensure your mouth stays healthy.
Part of oral health is also ensuring you eat a diet that’s high in nutrients and low in refined sugars. In addition, tobacco use, excess alcohol consumption, and even high levels of stress can complicate oral health.
The Connection Between a Healthy Mouth and a Healthy Body
Of course, most people understand the connection between a healthy mouth and preventing plaque buildup, cavities, and gum disease as well as keeping your smile bright. Less understood is how diseases in the body are impacted by poor oral health. For instance, when oral health isn’t optimized, in addition to leading to stained teeth, increased tooth decay, and bad breath, it can increase the risk of:
- Cardiovascular (heart) disease, such as coronary artery disease, as excess inflammation that can clog arteries and increase the risk of stroke, heart attack, heart failure, and more. These diseases have been linked to oral bacteria and infections in the mouth, such as periodontal disease.
- Endocarditis, which is an infection of the interlining of the heart chambers. It’s often due to bacteria or other germs that enter into the body (such as through the mouth) to then spread into the bloodstream and find their way to the heart where they can wreak havoc.
- Pregnancy complications, such as low birth weight, gestational diabetes, miscarriage, preeclampsia, or premature birth, have also been associated with gum disease (periodontitis).
- Pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses have also been linked to bacteria entering through the mouth to infect the lungs.
The mouth is one of the first and most important lines of defense. A healthy mouth with a diverse microbiome can help keep the entire body healthy. Likewise, the health of the body can affect oral health.
Diabetes, for instance, can lower the body’s resistance to infection, especially if it isn’t controlled. This is one reason why gum disease is a greater concern for people with diabetes. It’s also been found that prioritizing oral health may help individuals better control their diabetes.
Osteoporosis, or the decrease in bone density, has been associated with not only an increased risk of fractures but of tooth loss. Remember, the jaw is made of bone, so you want to ensure the bone mineral density of your jaw remains strong.
Alzheimer’s disease typically results in decreased oral health, especially as the disease progresses. And HIV/AIDS can lead to oral problems, such as painful lesions in the mouth.
Poor oral health has also been linked to:
- Eating disorders
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Immune system disorders
- Prostate cancer
- And more.
One of the most important reasons to take care of your oral health is because it’s vital for consuming healthy meals, which is key to survival. You need healthy teeth and gums to properly chew your food, which is the first step in digestion.
Untreated cavities and gum disease can make eating painful, which can lead to poor nutrition. This can lead to stunted growth and development in children and malnutrition in adults.
When you visit your dentist, discuss any health conditions—especially chronic conditions—as well as any medications you may be using, so they can provide the best advice on how to care for your teeth and gums to better support your overall health.
In addition, communicate with your dentist about what they’re seeing. While the eyes may be the window to the soul, the mouth is the door to the health of the body as a whole.
Practicing Good Oral Hygiene for a Healthy Mouth
Even if you haven’t done the best job of prioritizing the health of your mouth, relax. You can start today by:
- Brushing your teeth at least twice daily for two full minutes each time (30 seconds in each quadrant) with fluoridated toothpaste and a soft-bristle brush. For even better results, consider investing in an electric toothbrush.
- Floss daily to get into those hard-to-reach crevices. If you aren’t sure how to floss properly, ask your dentist or hygienist to provide instructions and a demonstration.
- Get regular dental check-ups and cleanings to keep your mouth healthy and your smile bright. In addition, visiting a dentist regularly (at least twice a year) has been shown to decrease your risk of heart disease, strokes, and other conditions.
- Manage your overall health, especially if you already have a chronic disease, such as diabetes or osteoporosis.
- Upgrade your healthy lifestyle by nourishing your body with healthy, whole (or minimally processed) foods, limiting refined sugars, carbohydrates, and fats, and exercising regularly. If you smoke or drink, work with your healthcare team to help you quit.