Poor oral health can lead to tooth or gum decay, which is linked to many health conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, digestive issues, memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
The good news is, taking care of our mouth can protect us from a host of infections, chronic illnesses, and mental health conditions. Brushing, flossing, and regular visits to the dentist helps ensure the health of our mouth is always optimal.
How does oral health affect our body and mind?
Research shows that our mouth, body, and mind have a close connection. If one is unhealthy, the others can be affected. The mouth-body-mind connection is based on the billions of bacteria in our mouth. Don’t worry—that’s a good thing. Having a diverse range of bacteria thriving in our mouth is what keeps us healthy.
Every time we eat or drink, bacteria from the mouth make their way into our digestive system, also known as the gut. When we are healthy, this does not matter; however, an imbalance in our oral bacteria from tooth or gum decay can lead to a host of problems. Harmful bacteria can travel from our mouth to our gut and irritate it, causing inflammation.
Our gut does more than digest our food. It has trillions of bacteria that regulate our immune system, produce essential vitamins and hormones, help us sleep, manage our stress, and much more. Any imbalance in the bacterial colonies in the gut can cause inflammation. Gut inflammation lowers our immunity and is an underlying factor in many chronic illnesses like arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, diabetes, heart disease, and mental health conditions. An inflamed gut can affect our mood and increase our risk of anxiety and depression. Gut inflammation can even cause us to lose focus or experience memory loss.
Oral health is often a window into the overall health of our body. If our oral health is disrupted, there is a high chance that there may be something wrong elsewhere in the body. For example, people with diabetes often have gum (periodontal) disease. And people with gum disease have trouble controlling their blood sugar.
‘Bad’ bacteria from gum disease can also travel to various organs through the blood. They can enter the brain and cause inflammation that can destroy nerve cells. This can lead to memory issues, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. Oral bacteria can also journey to the heart through the bloodstream, add to plaque build-up in our arteries, and play a role in clot formation.
How does physical and mental health affect oral health?
Having diabetes can cause dry mouth, and reduced amounts of the cleansing, lubricating and antibacterial factors in saliva are a common precursor to periodontal disease. Additionally, an imbalance in gut bacteria (and in turn an imbalance in the oral bacterial flora) can cause mild inflammation in our gums, known as gingivitis. It is exacerbated by increasing deposits of dental plaque, the bacterial film that develops on our teeth. If untreated, gingivitis may lead to more severe gum disease called periodontitis- with bone loss and eventual mobility and loss of teeth. Gut inflammation in the same way can also lead to tooth decay through imbalance in oral bacteria favouring acid-producing bacteria and leading to acid dissolving the mineral structure of the teeth. Because gut inflammation weakens our immunity, we may find it difficult to fight off oral infections, meaning minor imbalances can quickly manifest into more severe localised or systemic infection.
Our state of mind can also affect our oral health.
The food we eat when stressed can directly impact our oral health. Yes, we’re looking at you buttery steak and cheese pie, chips, chocolate and ice cream. As delicious as they are, if eaten often, foods rich in refined carbs and sugars can lead to a bacterial imbalance in our mouth and cause plaque to build up. Stress can even cause oral trauma from grinding our teeth too hard. Additionally, when we feel anxious, our body releases the stress hormone, cortisol. Too much cortisol can make our immune system weak and increase the potential for a bacterial infection of the gums or tooth decay.
Individuals with depression may find it harder to maintain a routine of oral hygiene and visits to the dentist. Unfortunately, this can turn into a cycle where poor oral health may eventually lower self-esteem, intensify social isolation, and further aggravate depression.
An integrated, holistic approach for mouth-body-mind health
There is an intricate web of connections between our mouth, body, and mind. If one is affected, the others are too. But somewhere along the line, medicine became compartmentalized. Dentists focused on oral health, gastrointestinal specialists treated digestive issues, and psychiatrists worked on the mind.
Dental health professionals who focus on an integrated approach to treating the mouth, body, and mind are at the frontlines of disease detection and preventive medicine. At Dental Holistix, we will routinely assess not only the presence and severity of disease, but look at systemic disease and inflammatory processes and how these are interrelated. Identifying tooth decay and gum disease early, removing plaque build-up, and practicing good oral hygiene can help us lower inflammation and live healthier and happier lives.