The Two-Way Street Between Your Oral and Overall Health

When you think about your oral health, what springs to mind? You almost certainly think about your teeth, gums, and jaw, but do you think about your immune system, your heart, or your joints? These parts of your body might sound irrelevant to your oral health, but the truth is they’re not. Every aspect of your body is connected. For your oral and overall health, this means that their connection functions like a two-way street, each influencing and providing clues about the state of the other.

As a result, the health of your teeth and gums can tip your dentist off to many health problems, making it a useful diagnostic tool that can help you get treatment sooner. This connection can also be used to your advantage. When you treat an oral health issue, it can also improve connected overall health problems — and vice versa. To help you understand how you can better care for your oral and overall health together, here are 7 health problems your teeth and gums can reveal as well as what you can do to maintain the best health possible.

1. Diabetes

Severe, hard-to-control periodontal disease can be a warning sign of diabetes, but before we explain why, you might be wondering, “What is periodontal disease?” Periodontal disease is when bacteria attack your gums, causing them to swell and bleed easily. In its most severe form, bacteria make it underneath your gumline to begin attacking the supporting structures of your teeth, potentially leading to tooth loss if it goes untreated.

So how does periodontal disease indicate that you may have diabetes? First, poorly controlled or undiagnosed diabetes leads to higher glucose levels in your mouth, which provides oral bacteria with a constant food source, contributing greatly to the development of gum disease. Diabetes also slows the healing process and impacts your immune function, making it harder for you to recover. On the other hand, untreated periodontal disease can raise your blood sugar levels, making it more difficult to control your diabetes. This can certainly result in a harmful cycle, but you can also use this to your benefit! Getting your periodontal disease under control helps you control your diabetes, and finding a way to better manage your diabetes helps prevent periodontal disease. In other words, a healthier mouth makes for a healthier body and vice versa!

2. Leukemia

Surprisingly, the early stages of leukemia can manifest as symptoms in your mouth. Doctors aren’t entirely sure why, but they suspect it has at least a slight connection to the way leukemia impacts your immune system. Symptoms of leukemia include gum disease, bleeding or swelling gums, and mouth ulcers. Leukemia isn’t a diagnosis that anyone wants, but the earlier you’re diagnosed, the better! If your dentist recognizes these early signs, it can allow you to get a prompt diagnosis, potentially making a massive difference in your treatment and long-term outlook with the disease.

3. Sleep Apnea

There are actually several ways your dentist might be able to spot signs of sleep apnea in your mouth. The biggest way is by screening for and noticing risk factors, like an enlarged or scalloped tongue, enlarged tonsils, a narrow airway or small jaw, and a large neck circumference. It’s also common for people with sleep apnea to clench or grind their teeth at night, so your dentist can also spot signs of the condition on your teeth in the form of chips, cracks, or wear and tear. Sleep apnea can lead to serious health complications when it goes undiagnosed, but many people don’t go to a sleep specialist to get their snoring or other symptoms looked into. Having a dentist who keeps an eye out for these signs and can point you toward a sleep specialist can be a vital step toward getting a diagnosis. That diagnosis can transform your health and the way you feel on a daily basis.

4. Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases often negatively impact your immune system, which can make you more vulnerable to infections, like periodontal disease. Even if you’re practicing a regular oral hygiene routine that includes daily flossing, an autoimmune disease can cause you to still struggle with gingivitis. It can also make it harder for your gums to heal from these infections once you’ve gotten them. Similarly, autoimmune diseases, like Sjögren’s syndrome, can cause chronic dry mouth, which can also increase your chances of both gum disease and cavities. If your dentist notices that you’re struggling with these health problems despite practicing a thorough oral hygiene routine, especially if it’s paired with other symptoms, they might suggest that you go to a specialist to determine if an autoimmune disease is the root cause.

5. Rheumatoid Arthritis

While rheumatoid arthritis, also known as RA, is an autoimmune disease, its very close link to periodontitis made it worth covering on its own. People who suffer from RA are eight times more likely to have gum disease than people who don’t have it. In addition to a weakened immune response, periodontitis is linked to RA by two main factors. The first is that joint pain in their hands makes practicing a proper oral hygiene routine difficult for many people who have RA. Flossing is particularly difficult, but it’s also the most important factor for preventing gum disease since it’s the best way to remove buildup from around the gumline. The second factor is that inflammation is present in both RA and periodontitis, and the different causes of inflammation can impact and even worsen each other.

Thankfully, tools like water flossers make it easier than ever to floss your teeth, even if you can’t do so using traditional floss! And amazingly, getting the inflammation in your gums under control by eliminating gum disease may also reduce the pain and inflammation in your joints.

6. Heart Disease

While not everyone who suffers from periodontitis has heart disease, the two conditions have a well-established link. When you have periodontitis, the bacteria that make it underneath your gumline can find their way into your bloodstream as well. This can trigger widespread inflammation throughout your body as your immune system fights the bacteria. Inflammation is a natural part of your immune response, but untreated periodontitis can lead to long-term, chronic inflammation, and that’s where your heart gets involved. This chronic inflammation can contribute to clogged arteries and high blood pressure, making you vulnerable to heart disease. In fact, research has shown that people who have periodontitis are two to three times more likely to have a serious cardiovascular event ,like a heart attack or stroke, than people without it. Thankfully, practicing great oral hygiene is a simple, quick way to keep both your gums and your heart healthy.

7. Anemia

Anemia is a condition where you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry a sufficient amount of oxygen to the tissues in your body. Your gums are meant to be a bright, healthy pink, but when you’re anemic, they may become pale. They may also be sore to the touch, even if you don’t have gum disease. Anemia can simply be due to an inadequate diet or menstrual cycles that are too heavy, but it can also be a sign of a range of health concerns. No matter what, you should always look into the reason for your anemia and take steps to remedy it. Dr. Berrien can alert you to the issue and recommend places for you to start your search for answers.

Plenty of Good News

With the right care, the connection between your oral and overall health can benefit you! It allows Dr. Berrien to spot signs of issues with your overall health that might have otherwise gone undiagnosed. Getting a diagnosis sooner helps you feel better sooner, potentially transforming your daily life by relieving your symptoms, and improves your long-term health. This makes it more important than ever for you to schedule a regular appointment with Dr. Berrien — for your overall health as well as your oral health! The connection also means that practicing a great oral hygiene routine also keeps your entire body healthier. It doesn’t have to be hard to care for your oral health, either, as tools like electric toothbrushes and water flossers make it easier for everyone!

Your oral and overall health are intertwined, sometimes in ways we don’t yet fully understand, but what we do know is that caring for one helps you care for the other. Dr. Berrien can play a role in helping identify issues with your overall health as well as your oral health, so it’s important to schedule an evaluation every six months. If it’s time for you to schedule an evaluation or if you have oral health problems that need to be treated, feel free to call and schedule a consultation at any time.