If one thing has become clear over centuries of humans practicing medicine and researching health, it’s this: Our body systems and parts are all connected. It makes sense, then, that numerous studies suggest a correlation between healthy teeth and gums and overall health, and likewise between gum disease and such disparate medical issues as heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
While no study has proved that periodontal disease causes any of these conditions, the connection appears irrefutable. “Oral health is intimately related with overall systemic health, says Roger Forman, D.D.S., clinical associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine. “Chronic periodontal disease has been definitively linked to heart disease, chronic sinus infections, preterm birth, lung abscesses, exacerbation of diabetes, gastrointestinal dysfunction and other maladies.”
Cognitive dysfunction and Alzheimer’s can be added to that list, says Robert Kachko, N.D., L.Ac., at New York–based Inner Source Health and a board member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. “The health of our teeth is also an excellent early indicator of other issues, for example the likelihood of having strong bones and preventing osteoporosis,” he adds.
The Inflammation Connection
What connects gum disease to these other medical issues? One likely culprit is inflammation. It’s at the core of gingivitis and periodontitis (gum disease), and is a noted element in many chronic illnesses. “If we have a chronic state of inflammation in the mouth…this leads to chronic inflammation throughout the body, including the heart and blood vessels, digestive tract, and brain,” Kachko says. “Inflamed gums and overgrowth of improper oral flora can lead to damage and inflammation in the blood vessels. This causes an activation of the immune system, which in doing its part to clear these ‘foreign invaders’ can cause damage to healthy tissues.”
Best Care Practices
We already know what to do. Brushing and flossing are critical to maintaining healthy teeth and gums, as are regular dental checkups and cleanings. Some experts also suggest once-daily water irrigation of teeth and gums.
“Daily removal of dental plaque, the sticky bacterial scum that grows on teeth, is mandatory,” Forman says. “A toothbrush will remove plaque on the lip and tongue sides of teeth. Daily use of floss or toothpicks designed for use between teeth is also necessary; a toothbrush will not reach plaque between teeth.”
Toothpaste is optional, which may come as a surprise. It’s the brush that does the work. One alternative is using baking soda, which Forman says kills germs on contact and is not very abrasive. “One can brush with plain baking soda and do a superb job of safe and effective plaque removal.”
Brush and floss. Sounds easy enough. But you can damage teeth and gums by brushing too often. Brushing once in the morning and once at night before bed to reduce normal plaque growth during sleep should be sufficient. However, Forman notes, if your meal includes lots of nuts or seeds and you have food trapped in your teeth, it’s best to get those out.
It’s important to note that hygiene practices should not create discomfort. “There should be absolutely no burning of soft tissue or tooth sensitivity after repeated use,” Forman says. If burning and/or sensitivity develop, change products. Also consider having a dentist critique your brushing and flossing technique to make sure you’re doing it correctly.
One group of products sometimes associated with discomfort is whiteners, which can burn gum tissue and cause tooth sensitivity in some users. Although the gleaming, perfect smile has become the ideal, Forman notes that a more natural look is just fine. “The ‘Hollywood Smile’ is often a very high-maintenance smile,” he says.
What we eat—good and bad—does matter. One thing all experts agree on is that sugar is problematic. “For susceptible people,” Forman says, “frequent exposure to sucrose will result in dental decay.”
In addition to sugar, Kachko recommends minimizing acidifying foods, including heavy animal proteins. He contends that the typical American diet is overly acidic, which puts the body out of balance and can lead to
increased bone loss—not a plus for healthy teeth. To counter this, Kachko recommends adding foods that are alkalizing, such as dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, bone broths and lean animal proteins.
He also suggests vitamins, with doses recommended by someone trained in the field. Vitamins A, C and E, plus D and K together, may benefit mouth health, along with zinc and CoQ10.
In other words, the foods and vitamins that keep you healthy in every way can also keep your teeth and gums healthy, and that’s good for your overall wellness.
Toothpastes to Try
Tom’s of Maine Simply White Toothpaste
Using naturally sourced silica for whitening and sodium fluoride to fight cavities, Simply White also contains natural peppermint oil for a fresh flavor. Accepted by the American Dental Association.
JĀSÖN Powersmile Antiplaque & Whitening Toothpaste
Prefer a non-fluoride toothpaste? This all-natural brand features a combination of bamboo powder, calcium carbonate, baking soda and silica to polish and whiten teeth and help prevent tartar build-up. Peppermint oil freshens your breath.