Oral Health: The Mouth-Body Connection
Reviewed by Steve Drescher, DDS
Years ago, a physician who suspected heart disease would probably not refer the patient to a gum specialist. The same went for diabetes,pregnancy, or just about any other medical condition. Times have changed. The past 5 to 10 years have seen ballooning interest in possible links between mouth health and body health.
"Physicians are taking a more holistic approach to their patients’ overall health," says Sally Cram, DDS, PC, consumer advisor for the American Dental Association. And for good reason. In one recent study, people with serious gum disease were 40% more likely to have a chronic condition on top of it.
In this article, WebMD answers two questions about the mouth-body connection. Why can the health of your mouth affect your whole body? And why are simple habits like daily brushing and flossing more important than you might think?
Your Mouth, the Gateway to Your Body
To understand how the mouth can affect the body, it helps to understand what can go wrong in the first place. Bacteria that builds up on teeth make gums prone to infection. The immune system moves in to attack the infection and the gums become inflamed. The inflammation continues unless the infection is brought under control.
Over time, inflammation and the chemicals it releases eat away at the gums and bone structure that hold teeth in place. The result is severegum disease, known as periodontitis. Inflammation can also cause problems in the rest of the body.
Oral Health and Diabetes
The working relationship between diabetes and periodontitis may be the strongest of all the connections between the mouth and body. Inflammation that starts in the mouth seems to weaken the body’s ability to control blood sugar. People with diabetes have trouble processing sugar because of a lack of insulin, the hormone that converts sugar into energy.
"Periodontal disease further complicates diabetes because the inflammation impairs the body’s ability to utilize insulin," says Pamela McClain, DDS, president of the American Academy of Periodontology. To further complicate matters, diabetes and periodontitis have a two-way relationship. High blood sugar provides ideal conditions for infection to grow, including gum infections. Fortunately you can use the gum disease-diabetes relationship to your favor: managing one can help bring the other under control.