You know the importance of brushing, flossing and regular dental visits to prevent plaque buildup and cavities, and keep your breath fresh. But paying attention to your oral health is actually important for many more reasons than that.
You’ve heard of the “mind-body” connection? Well, there’s a “mouth-body” connection too, and it’s an often-overlooked pathway to protecting your overall health.
Gum Disease Impacts Far More Than Your Teeth – and It’s Incredibly Common
It’s estimated that the majority of Americans have some form of gum disease (or periodontal disease) at some time during their lives. This can span from a mild case, known as gingivitis, which may cause red, swollen gums that bleed easily, to periodontitis, a more severe form of the condition in which plaque begins to grow below your gum line.
Recent research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Periodontology (AAP) revealed that previous estimates actually underestimated the prevalence of periodontal disease in the United States by up to 50 percent, making the condition a “significant public health concern.”1
The issue is about much more than fresh breath, as plaque and its harder cousin tartar produce bacteria that cause inflammation of your gums. While gingivitis can often be reversed with careful attention to brushing, flossing and professional dental cleanings, if left untreated the plaque will spread below the gum line and the bacteria and inflammation will progress. From there, the infection can attack the bone and connective tissues that support your teeth, leading to tooth loss.
But it doesn’t stop there, as untreated gum disease is linked to a number of other chronic diseases as well.
The Health of Your Mouth is Indicative of the Health of Your Body
Your mouth is an integral part of your entire body, and an infection there puts the rest of your body at risk. It’s not entirely known whether it’s the bacteria, the inflammation, or a combination of factors that make gum disease so serious for your overall health, but what is known is that this is not a minor infection.
As noted by the American Academy of Periodontology:2
- “The mass of tissue in the oral cavity is equivalent to the skin on your arm that extends from the wrist to the elbow. If this area was red, swollen, and infected, you would visit the doctor. Gum disease is not a small infection.”
To date research shows that gum disease plays a role in the following health conditions:
- Heart disease: Gum disease is associated with atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart attack and heart disease.3
- Diabetes: It’s known that people with diabetes are more likely to develop gum disease, but research also suggests that people with gum disease are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.4 In those with symptoms of pre-diabetes, gum disease also appears to accelerate the development of full-blown diabetes.
- Alzheimer’s disease: People with gum disease are at increased risk of cognitive dysfunction associated with Alzheimer’s.
- Pregnancy complications: Women with gum disease may be at increased risk of having low birth weight or preterm birth babies. One study found treating a woman’s gum disease decreased chances of premature birth by nearly 50 percent.5
- Lung health and respiratory diseases: Bacteria in your mouth from gum disease can be inhaled into your lungs, causing respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Osteoporosis: Gum disease increases your risk of developing osteoporosis.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: Gum disease is associated with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and it’s been found that treating gum disease leads to improvements in RA signs and symptoms.6
- Cancer: A history of gum disease is associated with increased pancreatic cancer risk.7 Kidney and blood cancers have also been linked to gum disease in men.
What Can You do to Prevent Gum Disease Naturally? (Beyond Brushing and Flossing … )
While genetics do play a role (it’s estimated that about 30 percent of the population may be genetically susceptible to gum disease 8 ), lifestyle factors are also very important.
Obviously, brushing twice a day, flossing regularly, and visiting your dentist for regular cleanings and check-ups are essential, but so is this often-overlooked principle: eating a healthy diet.
Poor diet increases your risks for infections of all kinds, including one in your gums. Further, sugary and starchy foods (including not only candy but also bread, crackers, etc.) feed bacteria in your mouth while producing acid that erodes tooth enamel, particularly when left on your teeth for a long period (such as eating dessert after dinner and going to bed without brushing).
On the other hand, lean protein and dairy products provide nutrients like calcium and phosphorus, which help to “remineralize,” or put minerals back on, your teeth, an important feat since acids constantly remove them. Fruits and veggies that are rich in water content (such as apples and celery) are also beneficial for stimulating saliva flow, which helps protect against decay and acid erosion.
On a systemic level, a nutrient-rich diet will give your teeth and mouth the vitamins and minerals it needs to thrive. In addition to calcium from dairy products (and green leafy vegetables), magnesium from whole grains, avocados, almonds and leafy greens is also important to build strong teeth, as are the following supplements:
- Vitamin D, which you can get from sun exposure or in supplement form. Vitamin D plays a role in calcium metabolism and may be associated with fewer cavities.
- Vitamin K2, which helps calcium be deposited in your teeth.
- Coenzyme Q10: There is some evidence that topical application of CoQ10 promotes gum health in adults when used in combination with conventional treatments.9
5 More Tips to Ward Off Gum Disease
There are several other strategies you can take to keep gum disease at bay, some of which you may not be aware of:
1. Quit smoking, as smoking is strongly associated with the development of gum disease.
2. Use medications only when necessary, as there are more than 400 commonly used medications that may reduce the flow of saliva, leading to dry mouth, which can actually increase your gum disease risk; this includes analgesics, antihistamines, anti-hypertensives, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety agents, diuretics and appetite suppressants, as well as radiation and chemotherapy.
3. Lose weight if you’re obese. New research suggests this may help fight gum disease.
4. Take care of your emotional health. There is a strong link between stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness and other negative emotions and gum disease. This may be due to increases in levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may damage gums, or it could be that stress encourages people to smoke, eat poorly, and neglect their oral health. Having effective ways to relieve stress, such as exercise, is an important part of both your oral health and your overall health.
5. Avoid clenching or grinding your teeth, as this may accelerate damage to your gum tissue.
Keep in mind that the beginning stages of gum disease may cause only subtle symptoms, which is why regular dental check-ups are so important. If you notice any of the following gum disease symptoms, however, you should see your dentist right away to avoid more serious problems:
- Persistent bad breath
- Red, swollen, tender or bleeding gums
- Pain while chewing
- Loose or sensitive teeth
- Receding gums or longer appearing teeth
1.JDR (Journal of Dental Research) November 2010 vol. 89 no. 11 1208-1213
2. American Academy of Periodontology “Mouth-Body Connection”
3. Ann Periodontol 2003;8:38-53.
4. Diabetes Care July 2008 vol. 31 no. 7 1373-1379
5. J Periodontol. 2007 Nov;78(11):2095-103.”
6. J Periodontol. 2009 Apr;80(4):535-40.
7. JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (17 January 2007) 99 (2): 171-175.
8. American Academy of Periodontology “Fallacies About Gum Disease”
9. Mol Aspects Med. 1994;15 Suppl:s241-8.