The mouth is the gateway to the whole body

Experts explain how oral health influences overall wellness

There is a strong connection between oral health and overall health, and scientists are finding even more associations all the time. Let’s look at four different expert views on how improper oral hygiene and consequent poor oral health affect the whole body.

“We need to keep reminding our patients that oral health is quite a bit more important than most people realise. It certainly goes well beyond having white teeth and good breath! The health of an individual’s teeth and gums does affect one’s general health. 

“For bacteria, the mouth is the entrance to the digestive and respiratory tract.”

Jack Dillenberg, Dean Emeritus, A.T. Still University, Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health

“The mouth is filled with bacteria, most of which are harmless but with the mouth being the entrance to both one’s digestive and respiratory tract, some of them can cause disease. 

“With good oral hygiene, such as daily brushing and interdental cleaning, these bacteria are controllable. However, without proper oral hygiene, bacteria can reach levels that might lead to a myriad of health issues.

“Studies have suggested that oral bacteria and the inflammation associated with periodontitis might play a role in some diseases. These include: endocarditis, cardiovascular disease, complications during pregnancy and pneumonia. Individuals with diabetes or HIV/AIDS may have lower resistance to infection, making oral health issues even more severe.

“Oral health is an indicator of overall health. Preventing oral health problems like gingivitis and periodontal disease will definitely reduce the risk of more serious health issues throughout the body.”

“Periodontitis pathogens are found in tumor tissue.”

Daniela Weiler, Leading Physician at Department of Oncology, Cantonal Hospital of Lucerne

“Poor oral hygiene and unhealthy eating habits lead to gingivitis due to pathogenic germs gaining control and producing inflammatory cytokines. Studies show a possible association between periodontitis and various systemic diseases such as arteriosclerosis, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer. 

“Chronic inflammation of the gums is likely to lead to systemic chronic inflammation. Periodontitis pathogens, such as Prevotella gingivalis and Fusobacterium nucleatum, produce more inflammatory cytokines, which migrate through saliva and blood to other organs, and then cause chronic inflammation. 

“In the blood vessels, for example, this chronic inflammation produces atherosclerotic plaques, in which the above-mentioned oral germs have been found.

“Diabetes is based on a two-way mechanism: on the one hand, diabetes increases the risk of periodontitis, on the other hand, periodontitis worsens blood glucose control.

“Individual periodontitis agents have also been found in tumor tissue: for example Fusobacterium nucleatum in colon cancer, Treponema denticola in pancreatic tumors and Porphyromonas gingivalis in oral cavity tumors.

“Conversely, a healthy mouth and healthy oral flora converts nitrate from plant foods to nitrite, which contributes to lowering blood pressure.”

“Dental calculus could be a sign of a risk of heart attack.”

Steven Lin, Dentist, author of the book Dental Diet

“Dental calculus or tartar on your teeth can be one of the easiest ways to spot signs that you are at risk of a heart attack. That is something I was never taught in dental school. But it’s a powerful lesson on how your dental health and your diet are a measure of your entire body’s health.

“Dental tartar builds up when the pH shifts, which is related to the amount of calcium in the saliva. When there’s too much calcium, the pH rises, and plaque becomes calcified.

“Like your arteries, saliva also has matrix-Gla protein. If you don’t have enough vitamin K2 in your diet, then calcium builds up in your saliva. As the body becomes less and less able to manage calcium, it builds up in places it shouldn’t – like the prostate, kidneys and heart… so it’s likely that teeth could be the first sign of this.”

“Bacteria from the mouth get into the bloodstream and sets off an immune response.”

Steven Freeman, Owner of dental practice Elite Smiles in St. Augustine, Florida, USA

“The mouth is the perfect environment for colonies of bacteria to thrive – it’s moist, warm and usually has lots of nutrients for the bacteria to feed on. 

“When bacteria grow out of control, they can cause both periodontal disease and tooth decay (cavities). As these conditions worsen, bacteria can move from the mouth into the rest of the body.

“Bacteria from the mouth get into the bloodstream by way of diseased gums, or places where teeth are damaged or missing.

“This sets off an immune response in the body, and C-reactive protein, or CRP, is released from the liver. CRP is a substance that is released whenever there is some sort of inflammation. 

“In the short term, it is a natural and appropriate response and doesn’t do any harm, but if CRP is being released constantly (possibly due to bacteria in the mouth causing inflammation), then it can set off a chain reaction that eventually leads to other health conditions.

“Sustained high levels of CRP in the bloodstream have been linked to an increased risk of heart attack. Doctors check C-reactive protein levels to assess your risk of heart attack or stroke. The higher the level of CRP, the higher risk you have. When CRP stays in your system for a long period of time, it contributes to the stiffening and clotting of the arteries.

“Pregnant women with a heightened immune response can actually activate their baby’s immune system. While in utero, the immune system isn’t meant to be used because it hasn’t fully developed. This can be damaging for the child and has been connected to the development of cerebral palsy. Bacteria in the mouth can also lead to preterm birth, which can cause other complications for a newborn.”

Illustrations by Adrian Mititelu