The human body is a complex thing, and its various systems interact in ways that are both dynamic and surprising. For many of us, we tend to think of oral health as being a distinct issue from overall health–after all, how often do your dentist and your doctor compare notes? In reality, each part of your health affects the whole, and can have a pronounced effect on your overall health.
In particular, your oral health plays an important role in maintaining your immune system, which controls how your body responds to disease and infection. Neglecting your oral health can have a negative impact on your overall health via its influence on your immune system. But how does that work, and what is at risk? Let’s dig a bit deeper.
Oral Health Meets Overall Health
As with so many things connected to oral health, it all starts with bacteria. The human mouth teems with bacteria, some of which are healthy, and others of which can cause cavities, gum disease, and other woes. The goal of brushing, flossing, and regular exams and cleanings is to prevent bacterial infections and other diseases from taking hold in your teeth and gums. These bacteria can lead to cavities, receding gums, gingivitis, and potentially tooth loss. However, as they interact with the rest of your body, they can also lead to other, sometimes life-threatening health problems. These include the following:
- Endocarditis. This infection of the inner lining of your heart chambers or valves (endocardium) typically occurs when bacteria or other germs spread through your bloodstream and infect some portions of your heart. Your mouth is the most common source of these bacteria, which grow rapidly under poor oral health conditions.
- Cardiovascular disease. As with endocarditis, other forms of cardiovascular disease such as heart disease, clogged arteries, and strokes may stem from poor oral health. The connection isn’t fully understood, but it’s strongly borne out on the research.
- Pregnancy and birth complications. Some conditions, such as periodontitis, have been linked to premature birth and low birth weight.
- Pneumonia. Some bacteria originating in your mouth can be pulled into your lungs, causing pneumonia and other serious respiratory diseases.
This is a sobering list of conditions that could potentially result from poor oral health and a stark reminder that brushing and flossing is about far more than just a bright smile. Interestingly enough, the connection between oral health and the immune system works the other way as well. Infections and diseases in other parts of the body, including diabetes, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune diseases, and osteoporosis can in turn have a negative impact on your oral health. As we’ve said, the body is a complex series of interacting systems and each shapes your overall health.
So what can we do to avoid these negative outcomes? Well, from an oral health perspective the answer is initially pretty simple. By maintaining good brushing and flossing habits, eating a healthy diet, and making regular visits to the dentist for examinations and cleanings we go a lot way towards keeping our mouths healthy. It’s also important to make your dentist aware of any changes in your overall health, as they may affect the course of treatment and help your dentist avoid problems before they start.