We all like to think that we are healthy, but how many of us realise that oral health is an essential part of our physical health?
Oral health is not just about having a nice smile and shiny white teeth, but by keeping our gums and teeth healthy it will promote a healthy body for us too. Nobody likes to have a toothache and this small problem (which can be easily rectified) can have a negative effect on our well being. It isn’t rocket science that when you have pain, you become irritable and can lash out at the nearest person (usually your other half or family members). It can also create stress which has both a physical and emotional effect on our body. It can raise your blood pressure, increase your breathing rate and heart rate, and cause tension. This in turn can lead to fatigue, sleeping problems, and changes in appetite.
Diet can play a big part in your oral health as well as physical health. Too many sweet foods create dental caries, obesity, heart disease and strokes just to name a few. The same can be said for smoking. This is where the dental hygienist can help, by removing the bacteria from your teeth and identifying any gum disease that you may have.
Some people may think that oral health is not connected to to the immune system, but this is far from the truth. The mouth is connected to other parts of the body and gum disease can affect your immune system and cause problems with inflammation in other parts of the body.
Research has found that bacteria and inflammation in the mouth have been linked with heart disease, stroke, dementia, respiratory disease and increases the risk of complications in pregnancy, breast cancer, esophageal cancer and other types of cancers. Research into this field is ongoing at the present time.
So because oral bacteria can get into the bloodstream and travel to other organs in the body having negative effects on your health, by treating your gum disease and improving your oral health, this can have a positive effect on on your overall health.
Researchers are still trying to understand why oral disease affects physical health, but here are a few theories.
Cardiovascular Disease and Stroke
Intense inflammation in the gums is believed to damage blood vessels, which over time can damage the heart and brain. The arteries harden, plaques develop on the inner walls of arteries which thicken and this can either decrease or block the blood flow through the body. This is called atherosclerosis. This can then cause an increased risk of a heart attack or stroke. Endocarditis is a rare and potentially fatal infection of the inner lining of the heart (the endocardium) and is caused by bacteria entering the bloodstream and travelling to the heart. A source of this infection can be a dental infection.
In 2009 a paper on the relationship between heart disease and gum disease was written by the American Academy of Periodontology and The American Journal of Cardiology. The recommendations from this paper encouraged cardiologists to ask their patients about any gum disease problems and similarly, periodontists are encouraged to ask their patients about any family history of heart disease as well as their own heart health.
Additional studies have found a connection between periodontal disease and stroke. In one study that looked at the relationship of oral infection as a risk factor for stroke, people diagnosed with acute cerebrovascular ischemia were found more likely to have an oral infection when compared to those in the control group.
Inflammation of the gums and periodontal disease makes it harder to control your blood sugar which can increase your diabetes symptoms and affect your body’s ability to control its internal glucose balance. People with diabetes are also more susceptible to periodontal disease, making dental hygiene even more important for those with this disease.
Research has found that when bacteria grows in the mouth and gums, it can transfer into the lungs and cause respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), especially in people with existing periodontal disease. The Journal of Periodontology warns that gum disease could lead to infections in the lungs, including pneumonia.
Researchers have found that men with gum disease were 49% more likely to develop cancer of the kidneys, 54% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer and 30% more likely to develop blood cancers.
Bacteria from gingivitis (an early stage inflammation of the gums), may enter the brain through either nerve channels or through the bloodstream which could lead to the development of Alzheimer's disease.
Some researchers found that periodontal problems are linked with milder cognitive impairment, such as memory loss, that make activities of daily life more challenging. In a recent study, participants who had the worst gum disease scored the worst on memory tests and calculations
People with rheumatoid arthritis have shown that their oral health is usually worse than others. Rheumatoid arthritis causes chronic inflammation in the body and this contributes to their poor oral health. However, if their periodontal disease is treated their arthritis symptoms have been shown to increase as well.
Chief Executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter, has said: "The link between oral health and overall body health is well documented and backed by robust scientific evidence. Despite this, only one in six people realises that people with gum disease may have an increased risk of stroke or diabetes. And only one in three is aware of the heart disease link."
So in a nutshell, if you want a healthy body, you need a healthy mouth too.