Oral health is much more serious than just brushing your teeth daily and flossing every blue moon or right before a dentist appointment (yes, we can always tell!). Maintaining the health of your mouth, teeth, and gums included, is something that should be taken very seriously. What goes on in your mouth is not exclusive to the rest of your wellbeing, and science has shown that the state of your oral health has an impact on other very important organs in your body, like your heart. For decades, doctors have been talking about the link between oral and heart health, and now that heart disease is the number one killer of Americans, it’s time we take this seriously.
The most evident link between oral and heart health is inflammation or swelling. Inflammation is when your body’s white blood cells and the substances they produce are working hard to protect your body from infectious intruders like foreign organisms, bacteria, and viruses. However, sometimes the body’s defense mechanism is set off when there are no invaders, causing the immune system to attack the body’s own tissues. Most often, these are called autoimmune diseases, signifying that the body’s immune system is attacking itself as if tissues were damaged.
When it comes to mouth health, inflammation is a sure sign of periodontal disease, swollen, sore gums usually being the main symptoms. The two main types of gum disease are:
Gingivitis: Causes painful red gums that feel tender to the touch and bleed easily
Periodontitis: Painful and inflamed gums with pockets of infected and germy pus
Periodontitis is the most suspect of the two, since it creates these lesions in the mouth, exposing the body to invaders and toxins below the gum line. Gums contain an elaborate vascular system, meaning there are a lot of blood vessels that could be potentially exposed. When this gum disease sets in, the pockets that form on the gums cause the bacteria to enter the bloodstream causing the body to trigger its inflammation reaction to ward it off. The inflammation that goes on throughout the body during this time also affects the blood vessels in the heart.
Studies have looked into exactly what bacteria is most often present in periodontal disease, one being Streptococcus sanguis, which is a common strain that leads to strokes. This means that people with risks of gum disease are highly increasing their risk of developing heart diseases due to the infection and inflammation of their vascular system. Some studies also show that the more bacteria that is introduced to the body through gum-disease, the thicker carotid arteries become, sometimes preventing blood from flowing if they become too thick. This means that the blood flow to the brain could become blocked, potentially causing a stroke.
Gum disease that is so advanced doesn’t appear overnight. Most often it comes along with various poor lifestyle choices in general. Many people who suffer from periodontal disease often have other co-occurring conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, poor aerobic health, and other links that can directly be associated with heart disease. Other things that are also commonly linked to people who suffer from poor gum health are smoking, using chew, poor exercise and eating habits, and not seeing a dentist biannually for x-rays and exams.
People who overuse antibiotics also have a hard time treating these conditions. Because of the recent over-prescribing of antibiotics in medicine, many people have rendered themselves immune to their benefits. This makes particularly infections gum disease difficult to treat, as well as other potentially inflammatory infections that can happen in the body.
Risks and Precautions
If you’re already diagnosed with heart disease, there are important factors to consider in regards to your oral health. In order to maintain or prevent your heart disease from getting worse, it’s absolutely essential to take very good care of your mouth. This means brushing at least twice a day, doing two-minute sessions of brushing each time. Make sure you are flossing regularly and keeping up with your dental exams at least twice a year for cleanings and x-rays. It’s absolutely vital to let your dentist know that you have heart disease, so they can be sure to pay close attention to any potential inflammation they see in your mouth and alert you. It’s also important to let them know if you are taking any medications for your heart condition and to follow prescription guidelines closely, especially when antibiotics are prescribed.
The biggest risk you can encounter at the dentist if you have heart disease is developing a bacterial infection called endocarditis caused by a dental procedure. This is an infection of the heart’s lining and valves. This can happen any time there is bleeding in the mouth and certain bacteria are able to enter the bloodstream through the vascular system that runs through your gums. Once this bacterium is in the bloodstream, it can settle into already weakened heart tissue and valves, causing damage and potential destruction of tissue.
Take your Oral Health Seriously!
Seeing evidence of how closely linked mouth and heart health are, there is no risk worth taking when it comes to keeping a clean bill of health at the dentist. As we all know, it’s much easier to prevent disease, rather than fight it once it develops. Prevention is the best way to keep your mouth and heart health together.
Taking good care of your teeth and gums can potentially increase the quality of your overall health. So next time you brush your teeth, take some time to focus on the details, brush a little bit longer than usual and really make sure you get into those hard-to-reach places. Keep some floss in accessible places like your powder room, gym bag, or purse, so you have it on you more often to floss every day. Take good care of your mouth; your heart may depend on it!