(February, 2011)Take care of your mouth, take care of your body
Your toothbrush may just save your life. Although those bristles aren’t going to be much use in a fight, they are part of a battle being waged in your mouth. Bacteria abound, and a growing body of research suggests that keeping them in line with a strong oral hygiene program may benefit the health of your entire body. Conditions such as osteoporosis and some cancers may first be evidenced in the mouth, and gum disease (periodontitis) can lead to issues elsewhere.
When your mouth is healthy, the bacteria that thrive there stay there. But, explains dental hygienist and continuing education speaker Trisha O’Hehir, RDH, “the mouth is a bacterial gateway to the rest of the body.” If you develop gum disease, “bacteria and toxins in the mouth travel to other parts of the body.” O’Hehir notes that oral bacteria have been found in places where disease exists, including arthritic joints and thickened blood vessel walls—a type of heart disease called atherosclerosis.
Last year, the American Journal of Cardiology and the Journal of Periodontology joined forces to emphasize the strong, if not directly causal, link between atherosclerosis and oral health. The journals issued a report noting that both diseases are marked by chronic inflammation and share several risk factors, most notably cigarette smoking. Researchers are currently examining how long-term, intensive oral health programs may benefit heart health.
Heart disease is also associated with obesity, and obesity has recently been linked to gum disease. One study of nearly 37,000 men found that those who were obese had a close to 30 percent greater risk of developing gum disease than other men, while a second study found an obesity¬-gum disease connection among a group of elderly people. Obesity is also a risk factor for diabetes, which, researchers now know, is linked to oral health. The diabetes-oral health road runs two ways. Having diabetes means you’re at greater risk of gum disease as well as tooth loss, cavities, and infection. On the flip side, mouth infections can make your blood sugar go up.
Not only can harmful bacteria escape a gum-diseased mouth, but the mouth can also offer a hideout for bacteria wreaking havoc in other parts of the body. O’Hehir explains, “The bacteria that cause gastric ulcers, Helicobacter pylori, can live in the mouth in periodontal pockets where they are protected from systemic antibiotics. After successful treatment of the gastric ulcers, bacteria from the mouth can cause new ulcers in the digestive tract.”
Pregnant women must be especially vigilant about keeping their mouths healthy. Gum disease has been associated with premature births and babies with low birth weights.
Floss, Brush, Scrape, Repeat!
You’re looking at your toothbrush with a little more respect right now, aren’t you?
Good: A solid oral hygiene program is your first defense against periodontitis. But before you pick up your toothbrush, reach for the floss. Bacteria—which you now know have the potential to wreak havoc—love the minuscule spaces between your teeth. “Starting the cleaning process in between the teeth focuses on the most vulnerable area, and the area where bacteria are most protected,” says O’Hehir. “If you only have time to do one thing, skip the brushing and focus in between the teeth for more bang for your buck.”
Assuming you’re not in a rush, brush, and take your time about it. First brush without paste. The strong flavor can numb your tongue and make your mouth feel fresher than it is. Toothpaste bubbles can make it difficult to see where you’re brushing. Feel your teeth, brush with a dry brush, and feel again. When they feel smooth, brush with the toothpaste for a freshening finish.
Finally, turn to the tongue. “Bacteria accumulate on the tongue, especially the back of the tongue,” explains O’Hehir. “Be sure to clean it with a toothbrush, a tongue scraper, a spoon, or a washcloth. No sense brushing and cleaning in between the teeth and then leaving the tongue as a huge reservoir of bacteria.”
Super Herbs and Supplements
Several natural products offer additional protection for this crucial area of your body.
Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon): Antioxidant-rich cranberry has long been touted for fighting urinary tract infections by keeping bacteria from clinging to the walls of the urinary tract. Similarly, cranberry may prevent bacteria from attaching to gums and around the teeth. Stick with the supplements; sugary cranberry juice is not ideal.
Green Tea (Camellia sinensis): Green tea is full of antioxidants, and as such is a powerful weapon in reducing general disease risk. One study indicates it may be effective in preventing tooth decay.
Neem (Azadirachta indica): Known as the “village pharmacy” of South Asia, the neem tree has been used for centuries to treat everything from chicken pox to diarrhea. In India, people use a neem twig to brush their teeth and gums, and then split the twig in half to scrape their tongue. Available in the U.S. in a variety of forms (toothpaste, mouth rinse, supplements, health and beauty products), neem has several positive effects on the mouth, according to Autumn Blum of Organix-South. “Neem helps tighten tissues and lessen secretions, a very important factor and action for helping to support healthy gum tissue.” Neem can also help reduce the inflammation of gum disease.
Pomegranate (Punica granatum) extract: A recent study indicates that pomegranate, sometimes used in natural oral health preparations, may reduce risk of gingivitis (inflamed gums). Study subjects used a mouth rinse of extract dissolved in water. Pomegranate is also available in supplement form.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10): This antioxidant is present in every cell and helps make a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP not only provides energy to the cell, but also plays a crucial role in several bodily functions, including muscle contraction and protein production. People with gum disease often have low levels of CoQ10 in their gums. Several studies indicate that supplementation can speed healing and tissue repair. CoQ10 is available in supplement and mouth rinse forms.
Vitamin C: All-around good guy C is crucial to gum and teeth health. Get enough. Period.
Xylitol: Birch trees, raspberries, and strawberries all produce this natural sugar, often used in sugarless gum and oral care products and available in supplement form. Xylitol inhibits bacterial growth, thereby inhibiting cavities. If xylitol is used on a regular basis, the quality of oral bacteria actually improves because the decay-causing bacteria can’t survive the xylitol onslaught. “Xylitol also elevates the pH of the mouth,” explains O’Hehir. “This makes the plaque less acidic and less likely to promote demineralization of the tooth enamel, the first step in tooth decay. And,” she adds, “regular use of xylitol after meals cuts bacterial growth on the teeth by 50 percent. Anything that can cut bacterial growth by 50 percent is a winner.”