You may have heard about the research linking gum disease with your heart health. It's been fascinating to learn about how the different types of plaques in our body - the ones on our teeth and the ones found in our blood - are acting in the same way.
People with gum disease can be two to three times more likely to have a heart attack, stroke, or other heart conditions. This we do know.
Why? That we don't know. The experts don't even know yet.
What Is Gum Disease?
Gum disease, or periodontitis, is an inflammation and/or infection of damaged gums. It's actually really common, most often caused by poor oral hygiene.
It's this inflammation and infection that causes the most problem. Researchers found bacteria from the mouth, particularly associated with gum disease in the plaque buildup of people who have had heart attacks. These bacteria have directly infected heart valves.
Dr. Hatice Hasturk of the Harvard-affiliated Forsyth Institute says this: "Periodontal disease increases the body's burden of inflammation." That burden affects every part of us, much of it in a very negative way.
Inflammation – The Cause Of Nearly Every Problem
Much research into inflammation in recent years shows inflammation links to most health problems. Getting this inflammation under control is critical to treating most diseases.
In the short term, inflammation helps speed the healing of an injury. But, with ongoing damage or chronic inflammation, it becomes very damaging to the body. It causes an immune response that can go out of control (autoimmune diseases) and contribute to other health problems (heart disease, heart attack, stroke). It causes an increase in LDL cholesterol and other cortisol.
"Acute inflammation is how your body fights infections and helps speed up the healing process," says Dr. Robert H. Shmerling. "In this way, inflammation is good because it protects the body." He goes on to say about chronic inflammation, "From the body's perspective, it's under constant attack, so the immune system keeps fighting indefinitely."
Bacterial Infection Cause Worry
Because some oral bacteria have been found in arterial plaque, doctors know there is a direct connection between infections in the mouth and heart disease risk factors. And it hasn't been just in arterial plaque. These bacteria interfere with the liver, lungs, stomach, and the rest of the digestive system.
Doctors are particularly concerned for people with heart valves because of a noticeable increase in failure due to bacterial infection.
"The bacteria that live in your mouth when you have gum disease can cross into your bloodstream, enter the heart, and directly infect the vulnerable heart valves," Dr. Marietta Ambrose, MD, MPH, FACC
says. "That's especially concerning in our patients who have artificial heart valves."
How To Prevent More Problems Than You Need
Most of the time, your oral hygiene will dictate the bacteria in your mouth. Brushing and flossing regularly can prevent many problems.
Your diet makes a huge difference, as well. Processed foods, bread, dairy, and too much meat can increase your risk of plaque building up on your teeth. These things tend to build a film that is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. And, processed foods, bread, and dairy contain lots of sugars that increase the type of bacteria that cause cavities.
Interestingly, there are some things you might not think about. How about your mouthwash? Alcohol- based mouthwashes are coming under scrutiny for disrupting the healthy bacteria in your mouth. Without these beneficial bacteria, the unhealthy ones grow uncontrolled and can lead to problems faster.
Drinking more water can help flush out excess bacteria and rinse off your teeth in between brushings.
Certain types of herbal teas and washes can help. Sage is an everyday herbal tea often used as a mouthwash because of its bacteria-balancing effect. Plus, it tastes good.
"Everybody should get checked out by their dentist the same way we get the rest of our body checked," Dr. Ambrose says. "Just like with high blood pressure, you often don't know that there's a problem until it's too late. Even if you brush and floss like you're supposed to, it's still important to have a dentist assess your oral health because you may need different treatments."
Gum disease challenges your health and not just your smile. Taking steps to improve your oral hygiene increases your smile and health in ways you probably haven't imagined.