Understanding the Mouth-Body Connection
Because your mouth acts as a virtual window to the rest of your body, a healthy smile is often a sign of a healthy individual. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true: The presence of oral infections like periodontitis, gum disease and tooth decay could be a sign of other underlying problems. And it’s often a two-way street – sometimes it’s the lack of oral hygiene that leads to other conditions, while other times, it’s those conditions that lead to a decline in your oral health.
First, it’s important to understand that your mouth, naturally, is full of bacteria. With proper brushing, flossing and dental checkups, that bacteria is harmless. But once given the opportunity, the bacteria can build up in the mouth and cause infections like gum disease and even lead to tooth decay. Once an infection has settled into the gums, it provides the bacteria with an opportunity to enter the bloodstream, which can cause problems elsewhere throughout the body.
Most commonly, poor oral health is linked to heart disease and stroke, diabetes, pregnancy issues, oral cancer and respiratory disease. So let your doctors and dentists work together to help you stay healthy from head to toe.
Heart Disease, Stroke and Oral Health
The one thing we know for sure about gum disease and heart disease is that they’re linked in some way. We just don’t know exactly how yet, although dentists and cardiologists have been studying the relationship closely for the last five to seven years.
“We see the same bugs that cause gum disease that we see in our patients that have cardiac disease,” says Barry Bartusiak, DMD, of Washington, Pa. “We don’t know how it got there, but it gets there. And it causes serious problems.”
One theory is that when there is inflammation in the mouth, it can lead to inflammation in the blood vessels. That, in turn, compromises the flow of blood from the heart to the rest of the body and can cause the individual’s blood pressure to spike, which can lead to a heart attack.
The other possible explanation is that the fatty plaque that builds up in the mouth can enter the bloodstream through lesions in the gums and then break off from the blood vessels, travel to the heart or brain and trigger a heart attack or stroke.
“We’re seeing the trend: patient comes in and says, ‘I’m here because my cardiologist sent me,’” Dr. Bartusiak says. “Good for you, we can help you. Let’s get those gum bugs out of there so they don’t affect your heart, absolutely. There’s definitely an oral-systemic connection.”
It should also be noted that gum disease and heart disease share several risk factors, including smoking, obesity and unhealthy eating habits. In fact, not smoking and maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle are some of the most effective things you can do to keep your mouth and body healthy.
Oral Health and Diabetes Connection
“It has been very well documented that when you’re first diagnosed with diabetes, you have to go see your eye doctor, you have to go see your foot doctor,” Bartusiak says. “And now, you really need to go see your dental office as well. And the main reason is healing issues. You just don’t heal well.”
What this means is, if a lesion is developed in the gums, that lesion is going to take longer to heal in a person with diabetes. And the longer that lesion stays open, the more susceptible it is to developing an infection and causing problems in the gums. If the infection lingers long enough, it can lead to tooth decay and tooth loss.
Additionally, periodontitis seems to affect an individual’s ability to control his or her blood sugar levels, which simply worsens the symptoms of diabetes.
Linking Oral Health, Premature Babies and Low Birth Weight
When a woman becomes pregnant, she undergoes all kinds of hormonal changes, some of which can increase her risk of developing periodontitis. This is significant because any type of infection – oral or otherwise – has been shown to interfere with fetal development and lead to such complications as premature delivery and low birth weight.
How Cancer and Dentistry Are Connected
“If you have a lot of infection in your mouth, and your overall health is not in the most ideal situation, you can be at risk for lowering your defense mechanisms, and therefore be at risk of having other cellular changes take place that could lead to possible cancerous issues,” Bartusiak says.
Thankfully, early detection methods for oral cancer have improved in recent years, and it’s becoming more and more possible to diagnose and treat the disease in its earliest stages.
Respiratory Disease and Oral Health
An increased amount of bacteria in the mouth can subsequently increase the amount of bacteria in the lungs and may lead to a respiratory infection or worsen the effects of pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.