Opinion: Smile Savvy

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Good oral health is key to safeguarding ourselves from many long term health concerns. Dr Sara Stockham, Practice Principal at Dental Artistry explains why.

How many times have you heard that brushing and flossing your teeth twice a day is the best way to keep your mouth healthy for life? Sure, this is true, however, there are a myriad of benefits to good oral health beyond just keeping your pearly whites and having fresh breath.

Your mouth is home to billions of bacteria, which are mostly harmless. Not only is your mouth the direct entry point to your digestive and respiratory tracts, but there is also an extensive connection between your oral health and overall health, primarily due to bacteria from the mouth travelling to different sites of the body, and oral inflammation increasing inflammation throughout your body.

Whilst this link between oral and systemic disease is now well understood within the Dental profession, there is much less awareness within the general public when it comes to the significance of oral health, in longevity and overall health. I want to take this opportunity to share some evidence based information and my own insights into this important topic.

Some of the links between oral and systemic health that affects much of the population are:

  • Heart disease: The spread of bacteria from the mouth to the bloodstream can potentially cause inflammation and infection leading to heart disease, clogged arteries and stroke.
  • Endocarditis: This infection of the inner lining of your heart chambers or valves (endocardium) occurs when bacteria spread through your bloodstream and attach to certain areas in your heart. Today, we still provide antibiotic cover for those at risk.
  • Diabetes: By reducing the body’s resistance to infection, diabetes puts your gums at risk. Gingivitis is more frequent and severe among people who have uncontrolled diabetes. Research shows that people who have gum disease find it harder to control their blood sugar levels. Regular hygienist periodontal care can improve diabetes control.
  • Alzheimer’s Disease: The presence of periodontal pathogens can travel to the brain, trigger an inflammatory response, and contribute to neuro-degenerative processes.
  • Adverse pregnancy outcomes: Maternal periodontal infections and inflammation can increase the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight in infants. This one is close to my heart as I directly researched this for my Honours degree and found an 80% correlation.
  • Lung conditions: The inhalation of oral bacteria into the respiratory tract, can potentially cause or exacerbate inflammation, Pneumonia and other respiratory diseases.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): The dysbiosis of oral microbiota may contribute to gut inflammation and the development or exacerbation of IBS.

This connection works both ways and I can often get a clue to an underlying condition or medication from a clinical dental examination. For example, certain medications such as decongestants, antihistamines, painkillers, diuretics and antidepressants can reduce saliva flow. Saliva is important to wash away food and neutralise acids, helping to protect from tooth and gum disease. Without this, you are at much higher risk of infection and tooth decay. Some systemic conditions, such as diabetes, cancer and auto-immune conditions, can lower the body’s resistance to infection, making oral health problems more severe.

More commonly, I see erosion of enamel and recurrent mouth ulcers that may indicate reflux or gastrointestinal sensitivities that are often undiagnosed. Patterns of gingivitis and skeletal growth patterns may indicate mouth breathing due to various causes such as enlarged tonsils and adenoids or constricted dental arches that need early intervention treatment.

So, what can you do? This is your first step! Awareness of these connections is critical. Make sure you tell your dentist about any medications you take and about changes in your overall health, especially if you’ve recently been ill or you have a chronic condition, such as diabetes. Take care of your general health, avoid smoking and vaping, eat a healthy diet, stay hydrated, don’t forget to have your teeth cleaned and checked every six months at your dentist but most importantly, brush and floss your teeth twice a day with fluoridated toothpaste for two minutes. These good practises are life changing and can be lifesaving!

For more information, contact Dental Artistry or visit dentalartistry.co.nz

This article appears in the Autumn/Winter 2024 edition of NEWMARKET. magazine. For more like this, click here.