12 12 gum health heart mouth clean tbRegularly flossing can give you more than a nod of approval from your dentist.

Along with cleaning out the plaque and other bacteria that are trapped between your teeth, this daily habit can help boost your overall health as well.

IMMEDIATE CONSEQUENCES

Poor oral health is connected with diseases including diabetes and cancer, notes Dr. Vasant Ramlaggan, DDS, HBSc, a Toronto-based cosmetic dentist. “They are even using markers in the oral cavity (such as in the saliva) to help find illnesses,” says Dr. Ramlaggan. “And, for example, vitamin C deficiency is noted very early in the mouth with the increase in gum disease and bleeding. Plus, loss of teeth can lead to poorer nutrition, which leads to the increase of overall severe health issues.”

It’s generally understood that good dental care involves regular tooth brushing, flossing and routine visits to the dentist. If one of these steps is missed regularly, your mouth is susceptible to plaque and subsequently gum diseases such as gingivitis, which is an inflammation of your gums. “With dental decay, you get into pulp of the gums and infections there can lead to abscess and abscess can lead to septicaemia and death,” notes Dr. Benoit Soucy, DMD, M. Sc., director of clinical and scientific affairs with the Ottawa-based Canadian Dental Association. Such an event did occur in the United States in 2007, when 12-year-old Deamonte Driver died from what headlines referred to “as a toothache.” In fact, Driver had an abscess above his tooth that, after being left untreated, lead to the bacteria making its way to Driver’s brain and subsequently killing him. “We haven’t had those cases in Canada but that’s one of the things that poor oral health can lead to,” says Dr. Soucy.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

“Then you have the less direct connections as a result of periodontal disease,” notes Dr. Soucy. “There are reports that dental health is linked with cardiovascular disease, diabetes and poor pregnancy outcomes.” While the connection of oral health and general health is still heavily being researched, some reports have already uncovered some links. In 2009, a Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC, concluded that improving oral hygiene may reduce the risk in developing the heart condition infective endocarditis. Another study, this one in 2012 and conducted by the New York University College of Dentistry, linked behaviours such as gingival bleeding and a lack of tooth flossing with gastric precancerous lesions. Not surprising given the lack of flossing being reported anecdotally from dentists and statistically—a Canadian Health Measures Survey from 2009 reports that while 73 percent of Canadians brush twice daily, a mere 28 percent floss five times a week.

A strong connection is already made between dental health and diabetes, as well. “People with diabetes tend to have very sensitive gums,” notes Dr. Soucy. “They are much more susceptible to periodontal disease than people who don’t have diabetes. Where it really gets interesting is people who have diabetes and periodontal disease have more trouble controlling their diabetes.”

And then there’s pregnancy—many pregnant women suffer from red, swollen and bleeding gums due to an influx of hormones. While treatment isn’t necessarily required—only continued preventative care such as brushing and flossing--this condition often corrects itself after the pregnancy. “However, regular dental hygiene visits during pregnancy are highly recommended because the hormonal changes cause a woman’s body to react more to bacteria, which can lead to exacerbation of gum and bone disease and of cavities,” says Dr. Ramlaggan. In fact, that old wives’ tale about women losing a tooth with each pregnancy revolves around this, but the reality is, pregnancy doesn’t cause tooth loss: but any lack of care during pregnancy might.

SO WHAT CAN WE DO?

There are a number of things to do to improve your oral health, which in turn have an effect on your overall wellbeing, including:

1. PRACTISE PREVENTION. This includes brushing at least twice a day and visiting your dentist regularly for check ups. Don’t wait for a toothache to hit before you head to the dentist’s office. “Waiting until something hurts is usually a recipe for disaster,” says Dr. Ramlaggan.

2. DON’T FORGET TO FLOSS! “The main thing we’re seeing people not do enough of is flossing,” says Dr. Soucy. “We can get people to brush twice a day regularly and that’s fine. But then you leave all the spaces between the teeth untouched. And unless you floss on a regular basis, you have a big part of your mouth that doesn’t get cleaned regularly, and is an area where trouble can start.” If your floss tends to shred between your teeth, the Canadian Dental Association recommends trying dental tape as an alternative.

3. BE HONEST AT YOUR VISITS. Report any health changes to your dentist, adds Dr. Ramlaggan. That includes anything from pregnancy to taking new medications. The more thorough a history your dentist has, the better overall health picture you will have.

4. QUIT SMOKING. “Another factor making you very susceptible to periodontal disease is smoking,” notes Dr. Soucy. Smoking creates a lot of vascular problems—your circulation is severely damaged by the products you inhale while smoking. “And that has a very, very clear impact under periodontal health. It’s easy to see that smokers have a periodontal health that is much worse than that of non-smokers,” he adds.

5. WORK ON YOUR OVERALL HEALTH. Noshing on a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean dairy and meat products, exercising regularly and minimizing how much alcohol you drink can directly affect your body’s health and your mouth’s well-being. (The Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Dental Association note, for instance, that alcohol consumption increases your chances of developing oral cancers, especially if you smoke as well.) “If we manage those lifestyle factors well and do things to help our health in general, it will positively impact our oral health,” notes Dr. Soucy