By: Cat Ebeling, RN, MSN-PHN, co-author of the best-sellers: The Fat Burning Kitchen, The Top 101 Foods that Fight Aging & The Diabetes Fix
Most people would be surprised to hear that oral health is very closely tied to overall health. But it’s absolutely true. Research shows that oral health has a far greater impact on many serious health conditions than you may realize. Making sure your teeth and gums are healthy will actually go a long ways towards helping you prevent diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and dementia. If you neglect your mouth, you can be setting yourself up for major health issues that can actually shorten your life.
The Mouth Has its Own Microbiome
Much has been said about the digestive system’s microbiome. But guess what? The digestive system begins in our mouths. And our mouths also contain hundreds—if not thousands—of microorganisms including bacteria, fungi, and other small critters. While the health of your gut flora has been proven to play a very important role in your health, it has become increasingly apparent the health of your mouth flora is also vital to your health.
In people with a healthy oral cavity, the tiny bacteria and other micro-organisms in the mouth actually play a role in the digestion of food. These little micro-organisms also play a role in the immune function, warding off dangerous pathogens that could invade your body. The oral microbiome also helps to protect the teeth from those invaders that can cause cavities and gum disease.
When oral care is lacking, and diet is off, the bad bacteria in the mouth can quickly multiply to combine with any sugars or starches and attack the teeth. This can result in cavities, gum disease, tooth decay, periodontitis and other infections. These infections can easily spread to other parts of the body.
While Americans seem to prize big, white, dazzling smiles, our actual dental health is pretty bad. Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 91% of adults had cavities. Almost a third of all adult Americans have some type of tooth or gum issue going untreated. A whopping 64.7 million American adults have periodontal disease, an inflammatory bacterial disease of the gums, and for Americans who are 65+ years old, the number of them who have tooth and gum issues is 65%.
Why is our oral health so bad? It’s actually pretty simple—it’s diet. Diets high in sugar, processed grains and carbohydrates, combined with acidic, sugary drinks just eat away at our teeth and ruin our oral health. Even vegan diets high in carbs, fruit and grains can cause serious oral health issues.
Certain inflammatory digestive problems like gluten intolerance has been shown to cause serious damage to the teeth and gums as well. One study on this shows a direct correlation between celiac disease in children and enamel degradation, along with increased incidence of cavities. It’s hard to say whether this is due to the problems with malabsorption of minerals, or the increased inflammation that goes with gluten intolerance. My guess is that it is probably both. Likewise, a similar effect can be expected for those suffering from other inflammatory gut diseases and disorders, including IBS, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.
So, it’s not only WHAT we put in our mouths that comes into contact with our teeth, but the food and nutrients that we put into our bodies that also affects the health of our teeth, gums and oral cavity.
Let’s take a look at some of the more common and serious health problems caused by bad oral health:
Heart Disease and Strokes
Most people would never make the connection, but poor oral health increases the risk for heart disease and strokes. Bacteria that causes gum disease can get into the bloodstream, along with plaque from the teeth and cause inflammation, blood clots and narrowed blood vessels. The damaging effect on the blood vessels can also lead to hypertension and strokes. In addition, colonies of bacteria can attack and infect the inner lining of the heart causing a serious condition called “endocarditis”.
Diabetics generally have a much higher risk of developing sores and infections. This includes the gums and teeth. With the addition of gum disease, symptoms of diabetes can worsen and it can become increasingly difficult to manage blood sugar levels. It becomes especially important for diabetics to take exceptionally good care of their teeth and gum. In addition, because gum disease leads to higher than normal blood sugar levels, a person with poor oral health is at an increased risk of developing diabetes.
Yes, really! Poor oral hygiene, gum disease and cavities all put men at increased risk for ED. Chronic gum disease is actually known to have a direct tie to problems with ED. When bacteria from diseased gums get into the bloodstream it inflames blood vessels. When inflammation is present it can block blood flow to essential areas, including the genitals, making erections difficult or impossible.
Tooth and gum disease increase the risk of a variety of cancers including, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer, and cancers of the blood. Evidence shows chronic infection and inflammation are associated with increased risk of cancer development. There is also a strong connection between bacterial and viral infections and cancer cell growth.
Obviously, poor oral health practices such as smoking or using tobacco products can lead to oral and throat cancers, but other types of cancer have also been linked to gum disease as well.
Respiratory Infections and Lowered Immune Function
When bacteria and harmful pathogens residing in the mouth are inhaled into the lungs, or travel there through the bloodstream, there is definite elevated risk of respiratory infections, including severe Covid-19, pneumonia, acute bronchitis, and even COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). What’s more, infection and inflammation in the mouth lowers immune function even more, making it even harder to fight off these serious respiratory infections, making them potentially deadly.
Poor oral health can have very negative effects on the brain. Substances released from inflamed gums can actually kill brain cells and lead to memory loss. Dementia and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease can result from the inflammation and infection from gum disease, when bacteria in the mouth is absorbed into the bloodstream.
In addition to the above serious health issues and diseases, poor oral health can also lead to:
• Rheumatoid arthritis
• Pregnancy problems
• Kidney disease
• Autoimmune disease
How to Protect Your Oral Health
First off, be sure to visit a dentist a minimum of once a year for a regular checkup and cleaning. They can inspect your gums and slow down any potential for gum disease or tooth decay. Be sure to brush often and floss daily.
Change your diet. Studies have shown a definite connection between a highly processed, high sugar diet and oral disease. Sugar and starches stick to the teeth and raise the acidity in the mouth, creating a perfect place for bad bacteria to multiply and do their damage.
A low carb, Paleo or ketogenic diet helps to lower carbs, reduce any sugars in the mouth, and protect the gums and teeth from infection. In addition, a healthy, balanced diet full of antioxidant rich vegetables, naturally raised meats and absent of starchy grains and sugar, is healthy for the whole body.
Protecting your oral health is exactly the same as looking after your overall health and wellbeing.
Eat well, get plenty of sleep, get outside and get lots of sunshine and vitamin D, exercise, and reduce stress.
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