“Giving up junk food.” “Getting off the sofa.” “Quitting smoking.” These are the common, and beneficial, lifestyle changes that many people adopt when they become serious about avoiding heart disease and cancer. But, what about poor oral health? (does your doctor appreciate the danger?) I understand: making an appointment with a licensed dental hygienist just doesn’t have the same sense of urgency as seeing your cardiologist for a checkup – but, maybe it should. When it comes to preventing chronic, life-threatening diseases, maintaining good oral health may be one of the more important things you can do.
Sadly, there are literally millions and millions of people that walk uninformed about how gum disease can set the stage for six serious diseases. Keep in mind, these horrific health problems are completely avoidable – when given the right information. (keep reading to learn more)
Warning: Chronic inflammation of the gums can affect the entire body
Researchers and scientists now believe that inflammation – which can include the chronic inflammation that accompanies poor oral health – is at the root of most chronic diseases. In fact, the potentially life-threatening conditions associated with periodontal disease include diabetes, stroke, cancer, serious respiratory infections, heart disease and obesity. Periodontal disease occurs in two primary forms: gingivitis and periodontitis. Gingivitis involves inflammation that affects the soft tissue surrounding teeth – namely, the gums. Symptoms include reddened gums, swollen gums, bad breath and bleeding upon brushing or flossing. If untreated, gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, a more serious condition in which pathogenic bacteria progressively damage the periodontal ligaments and jaw bone and cause tooth loss.
The main culprit behind periodontal disease is plaque – a sticky, bacteria-laden film that forms on teeth and gums in response to starches and sugars in foods. Plaque eventually hardens into tartar, which is so resistant to brushing that it can only be removed via professional cleaning by a qualified, dental hygienist. Plaque and tartar – and the bacteria they harbor – can build up and eventually cause destruction of gums and bone, along with loss of teeth. However, it is not just teeth and gums that are affected. Researchers are finding that periodontal disease carries grave implications for the entire body.
Recent studies link poor oral health with obesity, stroke and heart disease
The inflammatory cytokines that accompany periodontitis can contribute to obesity by raising levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation which causes fat cells to accumulate more fat – while burning less energy. This fact of metabolism was reinforced by a 2016 study, in which researchers found that risk of obesity was higher in people with a lower daily frequency of tooth brushing and use of secondary oral products (such as dental floss). In addition, two 2016 studies found that participants who had been diagnosed with periodontitis had a higher risk of stroke – as well as a higher risk of dying from all causes, including heart disease. In 2015, a 26-year study showed that inflamed gums were associated with stroke risk, leading the researchers to point out that their results highlighted the important role of oral health personnel in the prevention of stroke. To be clear: periodontal disease is strongly associated with increased risk of heart disease. Fortunately, it appears that the risk can be reduced with proper treatment. Researchers are finding that lowering systemic inflammation decreases the risk of atherosclerosis and inflammation-linked cardiovascular events such as heart attack – as well as risk of stroke.
Beware: Periodontal disease will increase your risk of cancer
In a prospective study involving over 48,000 male health professionals aged 40 to 75, researchers found that participants with a history of periodontal disease had an increased risk of cancer – particularly of the lung, kidney and pancreas. The study, which was conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School and published in Lancet Oncology, revealed that the association persisted even for participants who had never smoked cigarettes. Researchers called for more study, noting that periodontal disease could merely be a marker of a susceptible immune system – or could be a factor directly affecting cancer risk. Either way, the association is concerning. As if this weren’t enough reason to take periodontal disease seriously, a 2016 study published in the International Journal of Cancer showed that periodontal disease increases the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Periodontal disease has serious implications for diabetics
Scientists now know that periodontal disease can worsen the severity of diabetes, and even contribute to its onset. A study involving participants with type 2 diabetes showed that severe periodontitis was strongly linked with increased risk of poor blood sugar control. And, the conditions seem to be interrelated. For example, studies show that people with diabetes who control their blood sugar are at lower risk of developing periodontal disease than those with poorer glucose control – a very significant finding.
By the way, treating periodontal infection and reducing oral inflammation in diabetic patients causes significant improvements in hemoglobin A1c – a long-term measurement of blood sugar control. Simply put, improving dental health helps to prevent the complications and consequences associated with diabetes.
Gum disease can set the stage for respiratory infections – including pneumonia
As strange as it sounds, gum disease can even affect your ability – or lack thereof – to fight off respiratory infections. A form of pneumonia that affects elderly adults occurs more often when dental health is poor. Researchers believe this is a result of periodontal bacteria in the secretions of the mouth and pharynx being aspirated into the lungs. Interestingly, a six-month Japanese study of aging adults showed that only one out of 98 participants developed a respiratory infection when the group was under the care of dental hygienists. In marked contrast, 9 out of 92 people – almost 10 percent – who did not get dental care came down with respiratory infections.
Natural compounds can treat gum disease and support oral health
Fortunately, natural substances can be used as effective oral topical agents to treat periodontal disease. Studies have shown that catechins in green tea extract are antibacterial against S. mutans, one of the primary pathogens behind tooth decay. Green tea extract also inhibits the “stickiness” of bacteria – making them less apt to cling to teeth – while inhibiting production of amylase, which bacteria employ to break starches down to sugars.
Topically applied aloe vera can help soothe and heal inflamed gum tissues – while fighting pathogenic bacteria. In one promising 2016 study, researchers credited aloe vera with preventing and curing gingivitis. The unique fizzing action of hydrogen peroxide combats oral bacteria that are difficult to reach with conventional brushing and flossing. Studies have shown that applying diluted hydrogen peroxide to the gums of patients with periodontitis can cause significant improvements. Other natural techniques to treat gum disease include gargling with Himalayan sea salt, “oil pulling” with coconut oil, and the use of essential oils, vitamin C with quercetin and herbal mouthwashes – designed to be antibacterial and antiviral.
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