The Mouth-Body Connection: How Oral Health Impacts Overall Health
Oral Health’s Role in Whole-Body Wellness
Although we don’t often think of it this way, the mouth is a complex part of the human body; like any other part of our body, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The health of our mouth impacts the health of the rest of our body in many surprising ways, making it even more important that we take care of our oral health. Here are a few ways your oral health can impact your overall health.
Your First Line of Defense
Saliva works to prevent cavities by fighting cavity-causing bacteria, but it also works to protect the rest of your body from illnesses. In fact, your mouth is one of your first lines of defense against bacteria and viruses. It’s able to do this because it contains antibodies that attack and kill viruses, like the common cold, and enzymes that break down harmful bacteria.
Our mouths are great breeding grounds for bacteria; left unchecked, that bacteria may worsen existing pneumonia and may even increase your risk of getting pneumonia in the first place. Establishing a great oral hygiene routine and visiting your dentist twice a year is a great way to not only keep your mouth healthy but keep your entire body healthy by lowering your risk of getting illnesses, like pneumonia.
Due to hormonal changes in the body, pregnant women are more likely to develop periodontitis. Unfortunately, studies seem to indicate that periodontitis can have a negative effect on pregnancies. Mothers with periodontitis are more likely to give birth prematurely or have a baby with a low birth weight. Being premature or having a low birth weight can cause health problems for your baby in both the long and short term. In the short term, premature babies are more prone to respiratory issues, problems regulating their temperature, and difficulty feeding, but they can also suffer from long-term vision or hearing loss. Low birth weight and premature babies are both vulnerable to illnesses and infections and are more likely to struggle with delayed motor skills and learning disabilities. They are also more likely to suffer from asthma or chronic illnesses later in life.
There are certainly many other factors that can contribute to a baby being born prematurely or with a low birth weight, some of which are uncontrollable, but periodontitis adds to the risk. Just like it’s important to adjust to a healthy diet when you’re pregnant, it’s also wise to take care of your teeth and gums. It’s another important part of protecting your baby.
Periodontal disease also has a two-way relationship with diabetes; people with diabetes have a reduced ability to fight infections, so they are more likely to develop periodontitis.At the same time, periodontitis makes it harder for diabetics to regulate their blood sugar. High blood sugar adds to the problem by providing an ideal environment for infection, so poorly controlled diabetes often results in periodontitis. In turn, the inflammation that periodontitis causes makes it harder for your body to use insulin. Unchecked, periodontitis and diabetes can feed off of each other, each making the other worse. The good news is that this can also work in your favor; managing one can help bring the other under control.
The link between osteoporosis and oral health isn’t solidly established yet and is quite controversial. This is because osteoporosis generally involves the weakening of long bones, such as those in your arms and legs, while bone loss in your jaw is generally caused by the bone being reabsorbed due to tooth loss or an attack by bacteria due to gum disease. The current theory is that the inflammation caused by severe periodontitis may weaken the bones in the rest of your body, making you more susceptible to osteoporosis. This hasn’t been definitively proven through scientific studies, however, and is still simply a theory.
Stroke and Heart Complications
More studies need to be done to fully understand the connection between your oral health and your risk of stroke and heart complications, but it’s clear there’s a link. Oral bacteria causes inflammation in your mouth, but some research indicates that it may also cause inflammation in your blood vessels. In addition to raising your blood pressure, this increases your risk for a stroke, heart disease, or a heart attack. Lifestyle factors do still play a role, though, so it’s important that you’re eating well and exercising in addition to taking care of your oral health.
This is another complication involving your heart, but it occurs quite differently from increased risks of heart attack or heart disease. Endocarditis is an infection of your endocardium, or the inner lining of your heart chambers and valves. Although it’s not the only potential cause of endocarditis, periodontitis can lead to endocarditis when bacteria from your mouth makes its way into your bloodstream. For many people, this isn’t a big deal; your body’s immune system will take care of the foreign bacteria without a problem. If your immune system is compromised due to other health issues, however, the bacteria can make its way to other parts of your body—namely, your heart. Endocarditis is a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention.
The health of your body and your oral health are closely linked, often in ways we’re just beginning to understand. What’s clear, however, is that we must take a holistic approach to staying well, giving each part of our body what it needs to be healthy. We shouldn’t ignore any part of our body as we strive to become healthier. Although it may sound strange, that includes our mouths.