Explaining complex things usually means reducing them to their component parts, then taking it from there.
This works well in the classroom, but it’s not always a fair reflection of reality. We might, for instance, oversimplify a little and say that garlic is “good for the kidneys”.
This is true enough as far as it goes, but it’s also far from the whole story.
The human body is a wonderfully integrated whole: everything affects everything else in some way. Interestingly enough, what’s good for one part pretty generally benefits the entire system. Having a healthy gut, for instance, makes your brain work much better, even though there’s no obvious conceptual link between the two organs.
Every body part has its proper set of functions, and none of them are superfluous or merely decorative. It seems, in fact, that healthy teeth and gums are about a whole lot more than having a pretty smile and breath that doesn’t stink.
From Tongue to Ventricle
It’s therefore interesting that your dentist has a role to play in preventing it. Here’s how this works:
Inflammation, which is just Latin for swollen tissues, is associated with a variety of medical problems wherever it occurs. The funny thing is that inflammation seems to travel through the body, including from diseased gums to arteries and the rest of your cardiovascular system.
One in every 4 deaths in the United States can be ascribed to heart disease. Nearly 750,000 Americans have a heart attack each year, which can cause irreparable damage even if it’s not fatal.
To make matters worse, almost half of Americans have mild to severe periodontal disease.
The statistics for strokes and high blood pressure are similar, if not actually more alarming. If you visit a cardiologist and he tells you to “say aah”, it might be that he’s looking for valuable diagnostic clues in your mouth, indicators that might shed more light on the root causes of a problem than any EKG can.
Your Pernicious Sweet Tooth
In terms of the number of people seriously affected, diabetes is right up there with heart disease.
It’s no secret that what passes through your gullet affects your insulin levels, but how in the world do you get from tender gums to a wobbly pancreas?
As it turns out, the answer lies in the bacteria that live in your mouth.
Some of these are benign and even essential to good health, but others much less so. Some, in fact, emit waste products that filter into your bloodstream and interfere with the way cells process glucose.
Eventually, your whole body becomes resistant to insulin and your pancreas can no longer control your blood sugar effectively, which is pretty much the definition of type 2 diabetes.
This is also likely to make you gain weight, while diabetes makes gum disease more likely in its turn. At the same time, people who eat an excessive amount of sugar are at greater risk of both diabetes and gum disease, leading to the two conditions ganging up against you.
Teething Problems that Start Before Birth
Diabetes often rears its head during pregnancy. This is unfortunate, but far more alarmingly there’s a strong link between poor oral health and babies being born underweight, pre-term, or with complications.
How this works isn’t entirely clear. It may be that, just like with heart disease and diabetes, infected gums simply place too much strain on the mother’s system and something has to give.
Another possible explanation is that people who don’t take care of their teeth are less likely to lead a healthy lifestyle in general.
Whichever is the case, most expectant parents will be happy to floss a little more diligently as long as this helps to keep their baby healthy.
Poor Oral Hygiene Disrupts Systemic Immunity
Whether eating, drinking, or breathing, the immune system in your mouth is literally the gatekeeper to the rest of your body.
Your saliva plays an important role in keeping you disease-free: although we think of it as somewhat yucky, it’s actually pretty efficient at killing or disrupting the growth of both viruses and bacteria.
If your mouth isn’t healthy, you’re that much more likely to develop throat and lung infections such as oral thrush and pneumonia.
More importantly, apart from its normal housekeeping function of dealing with any stray microbes that find their way into your body, your immune system can also be “switched on” by chemical signals that indicate an infection.
This often happens as a result of poor oral hygiene, for instance when mouth bacteria enter the bloodstream via bleeding gums. Your white blood cells and other mechanisms going on high alert is obviously a good thing when you’re under attack by an acute infection, but keeping it running constantly can lead to all kinds of trouble.
Bacteria that are more or less harmless when living in the mouth can even cause dementia and infections of the heart (endocarditis), especially when the body is already struggling to deal with an autoimmune condition or some kinds of medical intervention.
People who are undergoing cancer therapy, are taking antibiotics, or who have a chronic condition such as Crohn’s or scleroderma should be especially vigilant.
Everyone’s Guide to Good Oral Health
Spread out flat, the inside of your mouth is larger than your forehead. If the skin on your forehead were red, swollen, and prone to bleeding when touched, you’d probably be freaking out right now. Yet, when the exact same problem is out of sight, we tend to dismiss it as no big deal.
The truth is that we all know how to keep our teeth and gums in good shape, we’re sometimes just too lazy to do what we need to.
Hopefully, now that you know more about the possible consequences of letting things slide, you will:
- Brush regularly: Everybody’s teeth are covered with a colorless biofilm consisting of bacteria and their waste products. Not removing this twice a day puts you at serious risk of cavities and gum diseases like gingivitis. Invest in an electric toothbrush with multiple cleaning actions. Once you’ve tried one, you’ll never want to go back.
- Floss: The single best way of controlling the population of bacteria in your mouth is by controlling their food source, which is often the remnants of the food you yourself eat. Small particles can easily get stuck in the spaces between your teeth where your toothbrush can’t reach. String floss can (or a waterpik).
- Don’t forget the tongue! Its bumpy surface offers a haven for bacteria. You can brush it at the same time as your teeth, although a tongue scraper is far more effective.
- Use mouthwash: Even within the dental healthcare community, there are differences of opinion on whether using mouthwash every day is a good idea. If your dentist recommends that you do, buy the product they endorse, otherwise use caution. Most mouthwashes kill good and bad bacteria indiscriminately, leaving a vacuum the harmful kind can easily fill.
- Visit your dentist twice a year: Getting checked out by an expert every few months prevents small problems from becoming big ones. We know you’d rather not do it, but you certainly don’t want to deal with the consequences of ignoring this precaution.
- Eat healthily: It’s impossible to have healthy teeth and gums if you don’t feed them what they need. It’s also a good idea to limit your intake of sugary or highly acidic snacks, or at least brush your teeth after every soda you consume.
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If you’re looking for good health in the form of a pill, you’re barking up the wrong tree.
Real wellness is the result of consistently doing the little things right. Eating less sugar and more vegetables, exercising at least a little bit, and – as you now know – taking good care of your teeth. This takes only minutes per day, yet affects your body in so many profound ways. You’d be a fool to neglect it.