When I began my journey as a dentist, I was studying under a mentor, and he told me that the mouth was “the eye way to the body.” What he meant was we can often look at the health of a persons’ mouth and get a good indication of their overall health. Over the next two posts, I’ll show you how different types of disease in our mouths relate to our bodies. I want to start with the link between gum disease and our overall health.
For years we have heard people talk about how disease in our mouth affects the health of our bodies. Research has taken this from theory to a fact, and there continues to be more information coming out about the different connections. One of the more frequent discussions is between inflammation that occurs during gum disease and how it affects heart disease, diabetes, and pre-term births. The mechanisms in which gum disease and these conditions are linked are all unique and somewhat complex. I believe much relationship comes down to inflammation.
What is gum disease and how does it cause inflammation?
Let’s first do a quick overview of what gum disease is. We naturally have a “turtleneck” of gums that surround our teeth. The space between the gums and teeth is the area we clean out while brushing, flossing, rinsing, etc. If healthy, this turtleneck is 3 millimeters deep. If food accumulates in this area, our body sees it as foreign and creates inflammation (called gingivitis). To give you a clearer picture, think of a splinter in your thumb. The area around the splinter swells and becomes irritated as your body tries to push it out.
As the inflammation continues in your gums, your body releases chemicals that trigger bone loss around your teeth. As this happens, the “turtleneck” gets deeper (4, 5, 6mmm and so on) and if not treated, this process eventually pushes the tooth out. This chain of events is called periodontal disease. Once periodontal disease begins, it will not correct itself without professional cleanings from your dentist. It is also painless until the very end, which makes it so destructive.
Heart Health and Gums Disease
The bacteria involved in the periodontal disease process gets into our blood stream and creates inflammation in other areas of our body. If the chemicals that cause inflammation are released around the heart, they will promote the growth of the plaques (clots) that lead to heart attacks. Different studies have found periodontal disease bacteria in 37-80% of carotid and coronary artery plaques. That’s pretty amazing.
Diabetes and Gum Disease
There are three different types of diabetes, but the one with the greatest link to gum disease is type 2. This kind of diabetes doesn’t allow the cells in our body to take up glucose (a primary source of energy) due to something called insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that causes cells to take up glucose. Chronic (long-lasting) inflammation in our bodies increases insulin resistance. Gum disease is a type chronic inflammation. If you have twenty-eight teeth (the number you would have without your wisdom teeth) and had gum disease around all of them, you can think of that as twenty-eight little infections. Pretty serious stuff when you think about it.
Pre-term Birth and Gum Disease
Ever wonder why physicians recommend that expecting moms see their dentist consistently throughout their pregnancy? Research and evidence between pre-term birth and gum disease are mounting, and there are many correlations between the two. For example, two contributing factors to pre-term births are infections in the genitourinary tract and increased systemic inflammation. We have already covered the increased systemic inflammation as it relates to heart disease. And in regards to infections, research has shown that the bacteria from periodontal disease circulates in the bloodstream and can induce the same immune responses as urinary tract infections, which are thought to cause pre-term birth.
This Figure Is An Overview of The Above Topics
There are some surprising correlations between gum health and systemic health due to the inflammation and chemicals released with gum disease. Think of all the articles that talk about anti-inflammatory foods and supplements. All of these articles are talking about reducing chronic inflammation. Maybe the best place to start is in your mouth.
Talk to you soon,
Will Yoder, DMD