Overall health and oral health are inextricably linked, according to a recent Surgeon General’s report, leading dentists to advocate the expansion of mouth maintenance beyond basic brushing and flossing.
“Teeth aren’t separate from the rest of the body,” says Dr. Donna Rumberger, a New York dentist and oral health advocate. “It’s all one unit.”
Healthy lifestyle choices, like following a proper diet, can benefit teeth and gums, while poor choices often affect the mouth first.
“Gum tissues are among the first to show signs of damage from poor nutrition because they are rapidly dividing cells,” says Dr. Matthew Messina, the American Dental Association’s (ADA) consumer advisor. If they become red, irritable, or bleed easily, it may be a sign that the diet is lacking.
Many dietary goodies provide unexpected benefits for teeth and gums, which do not require any special nutritional supplements after they are fully formed. Hard foods, including fresh fruits, raw vegetables, and popcorn, stimulate the gums and polish teeth, Rumberger says.
Drinking lots of water not only flushes toxins from the body, but it can neutralize harmful acids in the mouth. In areas with fluoridated tap water (about half of the United States), drinking tap water also fights tooth decay.
Heart-healthy exercise and meditation activities can release stress, which can be very damaging to mouth structures, says Rumberger. Stress can lead to clenching and grinding teeth.
Smoking cigarettes and chewing tobacco can endanger delicate mouth tissue along with the heart and lungs. Chewing tobacco “takes known carcinogens and puts them in close proximity to the gum tissues,” Messina explains. “It causes a dramatic increase in oral cancer–of the lips, or of the tongue, or of the jawbone–that can be very serious and life-threatening,” he says. The heat from cigarette smoke can also irritate gum tissue, and change the nature of the bacterial population in the mouth
Microbial Mouth Invaders
As general health affects oral health, the opposite is also true. The mouth always hosts bacteria that can become a threat to the body.
“Any kind of bacteria in the mouth can become blood-borne,” says Dr. Howard S. Glazer, national spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD). “It’s very significant that you keep your mouth in excellent condition.”
Covered toothbrushes can thwart would-be mouth germs, Glazer advises, and when a cold or flu virus has run its course, tossing toothbrushes can stop reinfection.
Bacteria can also turn nasty when they find an entrance to a tooth nerve. They can cause an abscess, and could lead to the loss of the tooth.
Chipped or fractured teeth should be checked by a dentist as soon as possible, along with new cavities, because “once a cavity starts, it’s only going to continue to increase in size,” says Messina.
To keep cavities at bay, dentist-applied sealants can protect craggy molars, and are advised for most children and adults with deep grooves on the surface of their teeth.
“Sealants are one of the best advances in dentistry ever,” says Glazer. “We can put ourselves out of business. I can occupy the space before bacteria can” lead to fewer cavities and invasive fillings.
The AGD offers other surprising tips for better oral health:
- Skip the hot coffee and cold ice cream combo: Extreme temperature changes cause teeth to rapidly expand and contract and causing tiny cracks that promote tooth decay.
- Chew sugarless gum. Chewing gum increases the production of saliva, the body’s natural buffer against cavities.
- Use a straw when drinking coffee, tea or wine to prevent stained teeth.
- Marry someone with good oral hygiene, since couples tend to share mouth care habits.
Brush, Floss, See Dentist
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle will improve oral health, but will never replace regular brushing and flossing as the first and strongest line of defense against potential problems.
“The tried-and-true techniques still do work the best,” says Messina, emphasizing the importance of doing them the right way.
A toothbrush should be soft-bristled and easily maneuverable to reach all the surfaces of the teeth. A small mouth requires an equally diminutive toothbrush.
Toothpaste should bear the seal of approval of the ADA. Through independent studies, the association confirms that the products perform as advertised.
The type of toothpaste (tartar control, baking soda, and anti-sensitivity) is up to the brusher and his dentist, but it should have fluoride, which acts upon the smoother tooth surfaces to prevent decay.
Brushing should be done in the mindset of a massage, as opposed to scrubbing which can irritate gums and cause enamel abrasions. It should be thorough, reaching every surface of the tooth. Gently brush the tongue also, dentists advise, to remove food particles that can coat it, promoting tooth decay and bad breath.
Flossing is still the only method that gets between the teeth. “Food sits there quietly doing its damage and you don’t become aware of it until it causes you pain,” says Glazer.
And of course, regular trips to the dentist, twice a year, should catch any potential problems. Still, don’t hesitate to see your dentist “any time you sense that something is wrong,” says. Messina.
Article By: Rebecca Webber, Medical Writer