You brush your teeth, do a quick rinse with mouthwash, and floss (pretty much) every day. So, your teeth and your mouth are in tip-top shape, right? Well, hopefully if you were lucky enough to be born with the anti-cavity and never-a-root-canal genetic jackpot. But the truth is, doing what you can to ward off cavities and have a bling-y white smile is not (or should not) be your only focus. Your mouth is a straight shot to the rest of your body and what’s happening in there could be a red flag for — or the instigator — of some potentially serious health concerns.
“There is an association between inflammation of the gum tissue and inflammatory processes in other parts of the body,” says Gregg Lituchy, a cosmetic dentist at Lowenberg & Lituchy in NYC. And if you think about it, that makes sense — your mouth is literally a direct link to your insides. And it’s a place where icky bad breath and post-eating gook thrives, which can then go well, everywhere.
“Bacteria that lives in our saliva can enter the bloodstream through tiny blood vessels in the gum tissue,” he says. Now, it’s only if your oral health habits are subpar that this can lead to a big time issues and not just a cavity (or two or three). “Bacteria in the mouth form colonies and stick to the tooth at the gum line in the form of plaque,” explains Lituchy. “If plaque is not removed daily through brushing and flossing, these bacteria can enter the tiny blood vessels in the bleeding gums and travel to other parts of the body.” Um, ew.
The major mouth-health connection is actually heart disease, which is the number one cause of death among men and women, according to The Heart Foundation. Ample research and real life scenarios prove that the state of your gums is tied to the potentially life threatening disease. “Colonies of plaque that are found in our mouth can be associated with the plaque that forms in the arteries of the heart, which can contribute to heart disease,” says Lituchy. “Although the exact mechanism of this has not been proven yet, many scientists and doctors believe that there is an association between the plaque in the mouth and the plaque that forms in the arteries of the heart.”
And the link goes the other way, too. “Some studies show that people with insufficient blood sugar control seem to develop gum disease more frequently and more severely than people who have good management over their diabetes,” says Lituchy. “Diabetes slows circulation, which can also make the gum tissues more susceptible to infections and reduces the body’s resistance to infection, which increases the probability of the gums becoming infected. And, high glucose levels in saliva promote growth of bacteria that cause gum disease.” The result: “People with diabetes who smoke are far more likely to develop gum disease than people who smoke and do not have diabetes,” he says.
So, what do you need to do to make sure your mouth and your body are A-OK? Keep up your stellar oral health habits and be even more on top of them than you think you already are. “It's important to change your toothbrush every three months because the bacteria that accumulates on your toothbrush over time will be reintroduced into your mouth when you brush your teeth,” says Lituchy. Next up: brush everywhere. “Brush your tongue with a toothbrush or tongue scraper, too, as bacteria tend to accumulate in the deep groves and fissures of the tongue. In addition to brushing and flossing, you should rinse with an anti-bacterial mouth rinse, such as Listerine, to kill any of the germs that you are missing from brushing and flossing alone,” he says.
The bottom line: Kill as many bacteria in your mouth as possible to prevent the spread of bacteria from your mouth to other parts of your body. And, of course, smile!
Photographed by Nina Westervelt