It’s no secret that emerging data are strengthening the link between oral health, heart disease, and total-body wellness. A recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease even discovered an association—although not a causal one—between oral health and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. And as with many diseases, the key ingredient is inflammation.
“The most common source of chronic inflammation in the entire body—in fact, the No. 1 inflammatory disease process in the body—is gum disease,” says Chris Kammer, DDS.
Under normal circumstances, bacteria in the mouth are benign and even beneficial—but as soon as they become pathogenic and enter the bloodstream, these bacteria trigger the release of C-reactive protein, a known component of inflammation. An inflamed circulatory system can lead to insulin sensitivity and diabetes, excessive fats in the blood, and fatty plaques lining the arteries—all of which increase the risk for a heart attack or stroke.
In fact, some of the same pathogens that cause oral diseases have been found in cardiovascular disease patients in arteries surrounding the heart.
Dr. Kammer notes that bacteria can enter the bloodstream fairly easily, even if you don’t think you have open sores in your mouth: “If you were to add up all the little points of bleeding that are going on in the gum area, you might have a wound the size of a fifty-cent piece.”
The conventional approach to oral healthcare has generally been centered on killing all of the bacteria in the mouth—and although antimicrobial medicine could save your life in a particularly compromising situation, using it as a preventive oral hygiene ingredient on a regular basis is actually damaging, leading to the evolution of public health concerns such as superbugs and antibiotic resistance.
“If we were able to destroy the bacteria in the mouth—essentially kill bacterial plaque—we would actually unleash ecological armageddon,” explains Gerry Curatola, DDS. “And the reason is that the bacteria in your mouth are natural; they belong there. They’re actually part of an ecosystem which we call the oral microbiome.”
In addition to protecting us from deadly viruses such as influenza, the complex community of organisms known as the oral microbiome aids in digestion and is an essential part of the salivary immune system. “That’s why the mouth is really the gateway to total-body wellness,” says Dr. Curatola.
To support the oral microbiome, Dr. Curatola suggests looking for toothpaste, mouthwash, mints, gum, and other oral care products that are rich in antioxidants.
“Vitamin C and coenzyme Q10 together have a synergistic effect to promote cell function,” he says, adding that product labels boasting vitamins E and A, folic acid, selenium, and MSM are all beneficial as well.
Xylitol—a natural sugar alcohol—is a controversial ingredient that has been promoted by some dentists and completely disregarded by others. Dr. Curatola, for example, finds it to be disturbing to both the gut and oral microbiomes, mostly due to its extraction process known as hydrogenation.
But Dr. Kammer points out that xylitol successfully destroys bad bacteria. Because xylitol is a natural sugar, bacteria are attracted to it as a food source—but bacteria can’t metabolize xylitol after absorbing it, so the cells burst and die, effectively releasing that xylitol back into the mouth for more bad bacteria to consume.
Either way, both dentists agree that a daily brushing-and-flossing routine coupled with regular trips to the dental office is essential for not only oral health, but also total-body health. And because oral health shows such a strong correlation with many other diseases, both dentists agree there needs to be more conversation between the worlds of healthcare and dentistry.
“In the eyes of medicine, we were always ‘the lowly dentist’—oh, it’s just teeth, gums bleed, it’s not that big of a deal,” says Dr. Kammer. “Now, it’s getting to the point where we’re having such a rock-solid contribution to the overall health of individuals that we can’t be ignored anymore.”
It’s equally critical that the concept of oral health go beyond fresh breath and healthy teeth.
“What we know now is that we don’t want to nuke all the bacteria in the mouth; what we really have to think about doing would be akin to organic gardening,” says Dr. Curatola, noting that nutritional deficiencies are at the root of so many problems. “Start to think of your mouth as a garden needing tending, and think of going organic.”
We must also remember how interconnected different bodily systems are. Our mouths are not just vessels for enjoying food; nutrients, toxins, and bacteria—both good and bad—pass from the oral membranes into the rest of the body, directly affecting every aspect of our health.
So, now that we are equipped with this knowledge—what are we to do about it?
Dr. Curatola sums up the solution in a simple phrase: “Feed your smile.”
Teeth Whitening 101
“Teeth whitening, which has become an American obsession, has hidden dangers that a lot of people haven’t thought about—most importantly, the fact that it causes reactive oxidative stress,” says Dr. Curatola. “So not only can over-whitening weaken tooth enamel, but over-whitening also damages and exposes the soft tissue areas of the mouth to disease and discomfort because of the oxidative stress that occurs in the whitening process.”
Aside from visiting the dentist—which he says is the safest way to whiten teeth because most offices use a protective resin on the gums to prevent the oxidative bleaching material from crossing into the bloodstream—he suggests the following at-home whitening tricks.
Mash a strawberry with baking soda and apply with a small toothbrush once a month; the berry’s malic acid helps dissolve surface stains.
Mix a small dose of over-the-counter hydrogen peroxide with baking soda and Himalayan salt—which has 84 beneficial trace minerals—and apply with a Q-tip once a day for four to five consecutive days.
Rub the inside of a banana peel on teeth; minerals like potassium and magnesium whiten and brighten.
Try oil pulling with organic coconut oil; swish a tablespoon in the mouth for 20 minutes to pull out unhealthy plaque and debris from between the teeth.
Follow her on Twitter @editorerica.
Latest posts by Erica Tasto (see all)
- Examining the Link Between Oral Health,Heart Disease, and Total-Body Wellness - June 14, 2015
- Researching ALS: Past Progress, Future Goals, and the Role of Nonprofits - June 14, 2015
- The Future of Free-From Foods - June 14, 2015