It’s an unfortunate consequence of having a separate doctor to work on your mouth from the rest of your body. It makes people think that oral health is somehow separate from (and maybe less important than) the health of the rest of the body, and when money, time, or interest are in demand elsewhere, people think that visiting the dentist for a checkup or cleaning is the first thing to cut from their schedule (though this may also be a convenient excuse for people who have dental anxiety).
But your oral health can dramatically impact the health of your entire body, and poor oral health can lead to generally poor health. How does this happen? There are actually multiple key pathways that cause oral health to contribute to your overall health.
Your Mouth Is the Gateway
Pretty much everything that enters your body goes through your mouth. If you’re breathing through your mouth, oral bacteria can be picked up and carried into the throat and even the lungs. Even when you’re breathing through your nose, the air passes by the mouth and can pick up oral bacteria.
When you eat or drink, oral bacteria can be carried into your stomach, where it is usually killed, but can potentially cause infection as it travels through your digestive tract.
Your mouth is even linked to your blood vessels through the gums. Bleeding gums allow oral bacteria to enter your bloodstream, and they can travel to your heart and the blood vessels near the heart. Oral bacteria make up a significant portion of arterial plaque that can stop blood flow to the heart or break off and stop blood flowing to the brain (stroke).
But it isn’t just the bacteria that cause problems for your health. It’s also your body’s immune response. When your body senses infection, it responds by releasing many chemical triggers that activate your immune response, also known as an inflammatory response. It can cause swelling, but it has many other effects. Systemic inflammation has been linked with metabolic disorders, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and autoimmune disorders, among other serious health conditions. This includes rheumatoid arthritis, where your immune system attacks joint tissues as if they were invading bacteria.
As long as your gums remain chronically infected with gum disease, your body will continue its elevated immune response, with serious consequences for your health.
The Critical Roles of Your Jaw
Your jaw also plays a vital role in preserving your overall health. The position of your jaw defines your airway, so it’s capable of either restricting your ability to breathe or helping you get the air you need. If your jaw is poorly positioned, you may experience sleep apnea, in which your breathing stops at night. This stresses your heart and keeps you from getting restful sleep.
In addition, a poorly positioned jaw can contribute to TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder, also called TMD). TMJ can cause many symptoms in the head and face, including jaw pain, headaches, tinnitus, and vertigo. But it can also cause symptoms in the neck, and back. It can even contribute to chronic pain conditions throughout the body. One of the vital nerves in the face is the trigeminal nerve, and when it gets pressured by the jaw or by jaw muscles it releases CGRP (calcitonin gene-related peptide), which has been linked to many chronic pain conditions like migraine, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Finally, the muscles of your jaw also help stabilize your neck. If your jaw is out of balance, your neck may soon be out of balance, too, which can cause all your vertebrae to lose their balance, resulting in a tilted spine that can cause pinched nerves all along its length.
Chewing, Nutrition, and Dementia
We may not think of chewing as being vital to maintaining a healthy brain, but it seems like it is. Several studies have linked the inability to chew food (such as those who have dentures that don’t function properly) to an increased risk of dementia. In humans, this might be related to gum disease–the most common cause of tooth loss in the US–which has been linked to dementia. But mouse studies confirm that chewing really is linked to cognitive ability somehow. Other studies indicate that the more you maintain your teeth and extend their longevity, the less risk of dementia you have.
And, of course, if you can’t chew properly, it can limit your ability to eat a full variety of healthy foods. With inadequate nutrition, you’re more vulnerable to a wide range of health conditions. Poor oral health can limit your nutrition, so it’s important to make sure your teeth and gums remain healthy and fit for eating.
Signs You’re Overdue for a Dental Visit
So you see how crucial it is to maintain your oral health if you want to stay healthy overall? Now that you know what’s at stake, it’s definitely time to schedule a dental appointment, if you’re due–or overdue.
If you’re not sure if you’re overdue for a visit to the dentist. Look for these signs: