Did you know that your oral health can impact your overall health? Learn more about the connections between oral health and your overall health and the importance of taking care of your teeth and gums.
One of the most important connections between oral health and overall health lies at the gumline. Healthy gums are firm, pale pink, and fit closely around your teeth. Gums are kept healthy by keeping oral bacteria in check through consistently good oral hygiene.
There are over 700 species of bacteria in the mouth. They feed off food particles that remain in the mouth after eating and are particularly attracted to sugars such as those found in soda, candy, and fruit. Whenever bacteria in the mouth multiply, such as overnight while you are sleeping or after a meal, they form plaque. Plaque is an invisible film in your mouth that feels slippery on your teeth. Bacteria from plaque release toxins that irritate gums and cause inflammation (called gingivitis).
When plaque is not regularly removed, it accumulates minerals from saliva and may harden into tartar—an off-white, yellow, or brown substance that sticks to the surface of teeth. Unlike plaque that can be cleaned by daily brushing and flossing, tartar may be impossible to remove at home and will likely require cleaning by a dentist.
Tartar can spread under the gumline and can also cause inflammation. Thus, if both plaque and tartar are not cleaned regularly, inflammation of the gums becomes progressively worse over time, leading to gum disease, also called periodontal disease or periodontitis. Periodontitis can be a major threat to both oral and overall health.
Periodontal disease causes damage to the soft tissue it comes in contact with and can destroy the bone that supports teeth, leading to loosened teeth and ultimately tooth loss.
Warning signs of gum disease include:
- Bad breath or bad taste that won’t go away
- Red or swollen gums
- Tender or bleeding gums
- Painful chewing
- Loose teeth
- Sensitive teeth
- Gums that have pulled away from your teeth
- Any change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite
- Any change in the fit of partial dentures
Periodontitis has been associated with serious and potentially life-threatening conditions such as pneumonia, heart disease, osteoporosis (weak bones), pregnancy complications, and even stroke. Research also found that men with chronic gum disease are more likely to develop certain types of cancer.
A recent study found a potential link between periodontitis and the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, individuals with certain health conditions, such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, may find it increasingly difficult to treat these conditions and have more complications if they have periodontal disease.
These problems occur because of the inseparable connection between the mouth and the body. Scientists believe this happens via two main mechanisms:
- Inflammation of the gums triggers systemic inflammation in other parts of the body or the entire body.
- Plaque bacteria take advantage of gum inflammation and escape from the oral cavity into the bloodstream where they can negatively impact other parts of the body.
What are some risks for developing gum disease?
- Tobacco use. Cigarette smoking and chewing tobacco.
- Dental problems. Clenching or grinding teeth, crooked teeth, broken fillings, dental appliances that do not fit properly.
- Some individuals are more susceptible to gum disease based on their genetic heritage.
- Poor nutrition. Lack of certain nutrients and high consumption of simple carbohydrates (such as soda and candy) can weaken the gums and encourage the growth of harmful bacteria.
- Under stress, the body’s ability to fight infections weakens while eating habits often become worse.
- Some medicines for the heart, oral contraceptives, steroids, anti-depressants, and chemotherapy may affect oral health.
- Older individuals are at higher risk of gum disease, and over 70% of Americans age 65 and older have periodontitis.
- Systemic diseases. Conditions such as diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and HIV may contribute to inflammation in the oral cavity and gums or interfere with the body’s ability to fight bacterial infections in the mouth.
Periodontitis is called a silent disease because its presence and impact may remain unnoticed for years until obvious complications develop. The good news is that periodontitis is largely preventable.
What are some simple steps for preventing gum disease?
- Brushing at least twice a day
- Flossing daily
- Rinsing with mouthwash
- Getting regular dental checkups and cleanings
- Avoiding smoking and chewing tobacco
- Eating healthy and reducing simple carbs
- Minimizing emotional and physical stress
The good news is that gum disease is treatable. In early stages, periodontitis is treated with specialized deep cleaning procedures such as scaling or root planing. Antibiotics are also commonly used to help eliminate bacterial infections. Advanced stages of periodontal disease are usually treated with different types of specialized surgery.
Taking advantage of these treatments at any stage of gum disease can become lifesaving. Getting rid of gum disease promotes oral health by reducing discomfort, pain, and bad breath as well as by saving natural teeth, soft tissues, and bone. Moreover, when oral health is restored, the rest of the body reacts in kind. In fact, treatment of periodontitis appears to reduce or even completely “switch off” generalized inflammation in the body. These changes suggest how closely oral health and overall health are connected, and that a positive change in one often leads to a positive change in the other.
American Academy of Periodontology, “Gum Disease and Other Systemic Diseases.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Periodontal Disease,” July 10, 2013.
Hatice Hasturk and Alpdogan Kantarci, “Activation and Resolution of Periodontal Inflammation and Its Systemic Impact,” Periodontal 2000 69, no. 1, October 2015.
Kathleen Hall, “What Gum Disease Can Mean for Your Overall Health,” Everyday Health, February 14, 2018.
Mayo Clinic, “Periodontitis,” February 14, 2020.
Rebecca Joy Stanborough, “What is Dental Plaque?,” Healthline, August 2, 2019.