What Your Teeth Can Tell You About Your Overall Health: A Dentist Explains
Traditional dental health tends to focus on basics like cavities or teeth whitening.
But a growing body of evidence suggests that there's also a powerful "mouth-body connection" at play. In other words: The health of your mouth can affect health and well-being everywhere else in the body.
A report from the U.S. surgeon general perhaps said it best: "The mouth is a mirror of health and disease in the body."
Most of us see our teeth every day when we look in the mirror. But when was the last time you actually studied them closely?
Here are four great ways to check out your teeth for clues as to what's going on elsewhere in the body.
Sign #1: Your teeth are flat at the bottom.
If the edges of your teeth are flat, it might be due to grinding your teeth and clenching your jaw. In that case, you might have an underlying sleep disorder.
How does this affect your teeth? When you grind and clench at night, you put your teeth under tremendous forces that wear away enamel for good. Wear down enamel enough, and you risk getting down to the root of the tooth — which can be painful and require expensive dental work.
What To Do: Treat the true cause of your grinding and clenching, not just your symptoms. Protecting your teeth with a night guard doesn't cut it, since even though you'll be protecting your teeth, you'll still be damaging your jaw joint.
Instead, talk to your doctor about getting a sleep study. Nighttime grinding is the way the body reopens the airway when struggling to breathe. The root cause could be sleep apnea, and a sleep medicine doctor can help you find ways to manage it.
Sign #2: You have bleeding or red gums.
Bleeding or red, puffy gums is a common sign of gum disease. But it's also an indicator of overall inflammation, which affects health everywhere else in your body.
When your body is reacting with inflammation in your mouth, it's chronically stressed. In fact, gum disease has been linked to a range of other chronic issues, including heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and osteoporosis. It's even been associated with giving birth preterm.
Because of this inflammation link, research has also shown that treating gum disease can lead to better health outcomes in people with heart disease and diabetes, and can reduce joint pain and overall inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
What To Do: Do everything you can to prevent gum disease. Brush (gently) after meals. Floss daily. Use a tongue scraper. Have regular teeth cleanings. Eat a nutritious diet high in alkaline foods and limit or avoid acidic processed foods. Healthy gums look pink and firm, not swollen and reddish.
I find it's common to think that we can worry about this stuff later, but gum disease isn't reversible. Once you have gum disease, you can only stop its progression. Make sure you partner with a dentist who isn't just concerned with treating you but is also thinking about how your mouth affects the health of the rest of your body.
Sign #3: You have chronic bad breath.
Bad breath is usually caused by not flossing, tongue scraping, and brushing enough. But when you're doing all those things and still have bad breath, it can be a red flag for something more serious.
What To Do: First, stop using mouthwash, which often causes bad breath thanks to its high alcohol content and how it disrupts the natural microbiome in your mouth by wiping out both good and bad bacteria indiscriminately.
Instead, grab a tongue scraper and start using it daily. Plus, floss and brush at least twice a day.
I also recommend taking an oral probiotic supplement, which can help to seed the oral cavity with the good kinds of oral bacteria that keep bad bacteria and bad breath in check.
If you still have bad breath, it could be indicative of something more serious. Fishy breath has been associated with kidney problems while fruity breath is linked to diabetes. Plus, people with sleep disorders often sleep with their mouths open because of blockages in the nose. This mouth breathing causes bad morning breath and might signal a need for a sleep study.
Sign #4: You have gapped teeth.
Gaps in the teeth can indicate that you have tongue thrusts, or what's also called a reverse swallow. This can be due to a large tongue or thumb sucking as a kid, but also allergies or nasal congestion that force you to breathe through your mouth.
How are gaps formed? We swallow thousands of times every day, and every time we do, the tongue exerts forces against the teeth that can push them out and forward. This can affect how you speak, as well as how you breathe while you sleep — which is why gaps in the teeth can also be a red flag for a sleep disorder.
What To Do: If you notice gaps, get screened by your dentist for sleep-disordered breathing. You can then seek out an orofacial myologist, who is trained in therapy that retrains the tongue muscle and the swallowing pattern.
My wish for you is to have not only beautiful teeth but functional ones — and a smile and mouth that promote overall wellness.
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