How oral health impacts chronic diseases

Each part of our body acts together with each other as one big integrated system, with different elements interrelating in complicated ways. Recently, researchers have been increasingly interested in precisely how our oral health affects chronic diseases. New studies continue to uncover evidence that the condition of our mouths can influence various aspects of our general health. This includes our heart health, how well our metabolism works, our immune system’s response and, surprisingly to many, even our brain health.

Chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are major causes of both serious health issues and fatalities globally. These are conditions that persist over a long period. What’s important to understand is that having poor oral health isn’t just a standalone problem; it can actually be linked to these chronic diseases in a two-way relationship. Studies show that poor oral health can worsen chronic diseases, and similarly, certain chronic conditions can increase the risk of experiencing oral health issues.

The mouth-body connection

There are three main ways to understand this connection:

    Direct impact: Sometimes, a chronic illness or its treatment can directly affect oral health, and vice versa. For instance, consistently high blood sugar levels from diabetes can create conditions that promote gum inflammation. On the other hand, untreated gum disease can lead to increased inflammation throughout the body, making it more challenging for the body to efficiently use insulin.
    Indirect impact: Medications used to manage chronic diseases, such as antidepressants or certain blood pressure medications, may cause dry mouth as a side effect. This dryness can raise the risk of cavities. Additionally, mouth problems like pain or difficulty chewing can make it challenging to eat a healthy diet, which could worsen a chronic illness.
    Shared culprits: Many chronic diseases and oral health problems share similar bad habits as risk factors, like smoking or a poor diet. So tackling these unhealthy habits can benefit both your mouth and your overall health.
gingivitis heart health

The oral microbiome

Inside your mouth, you have different areas, such as the tongue, gums, cheeks and teeth, each with its own mix of tiny organisms called microbes. Factors like how much oxygen is there, what kind of nutrients are available and how much saliva flows around affect these microbes. When there’s an imbalance in these microbes on any of these surfaces, it’s called dysbiosis. Research suggests that this imbalance in the mouth’s microbes might be linked to chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

oral health vs body health

*This figure illustrates the associations between oral and chronic diseases based on changes in the abundance of organisms in the oral cavity.

Common chronic diseases

    Heart disease: Gum disease (periodontal disease) is an inflammatory condition that triggers the body’s immune response. This inflammation can release harmful bacteria into the bloodstream, potentially increasing the risk of blood clots and contributing to heart disease. Conversely, uncontrolled heart disease can weaken the immune system, making you more vulnerable to gum disease.
heart disease
    Diabetes: Diabetes can make gum disease worse, and gum disease can make it harder to control blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. The chronic inflammation from gum disease can make the body less sensitive to insulin, making it tougher to manage blood sugar.
    Alzheimer’s disease: While the exact link is still under investigation, some research suggests a possible connection between chronic gum infection and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The idea is that the body’s inflammatory response to gum disease could play a part in the development of Alzheimer’s.
    Respiratory illness: Neglecting oral hygiene can create a perfect environment for harmful bacteria, which can be inhaled and contribute to respiratory issues such as pneumonia, especially in people with weakened immune systems.
    Anxiety and depression: Oral health problems can cause chronic pain and discomfort, which can significantly affect mental well-being. Issues like difficulty eating, worries about bad breath in social situations and the stress of dental problems can all add to feelings of anxiety and depression.
    Cancer: Some studies suggest a possible link between oral health and certain types of cancer, particularly oral cancer like squamous cell carcinoma. This could be due to factors such as smoking, heavy drinking and long-term gum inflammation. Chronic inflammation may harm cells and potentially increase the risk of cancer.
    Obesity: Obesity is a complex condition with many factors involved. However, some research suggests a connection between obesity and poor oral health. Obesity can boost inflammation in the body, which could make gum disease worse. Also, sugary foods and drinks linked to obesity can contribute to tooth decay.

The mouth’s role in your general health

    Hormone production: The salivary glands in the mouth are not just responsible for producing saliva; they also produce hormones. One example is salivary amylase, an enzyme that helps break down carbohydrates. If there’s inflammation or a problem in your mouth, it can mess with this hormone production, which affects how your body digests food and absorbs nutrients.
    Metabolic syndrome: Metabolic syndrome is a mix of health issues like high blood pressure, insulin resistance and abnormal cholesterol levels. Some research suggests a link between gum disease and metabolic syndrome, creating a back-and-forth relationship between oral health and your body’s metabolism. Gum disease’s long-lasting inflammation can make insulin resistance worse, which is a big part of metabolic syndrome. Insulin resistance itself can mess with your immune system and make you more likely to get oral infections. Plus, gum disease can throw off your body’s balance by causing inflammation, messing with how your body handles sugar and fats.
    Gut microbiome modulation: The bacteria in your mouth can affect the bacteria in your gut, which is absolutely critical for your metabolism. If there’s an imbalance of bacteria in your mouth, it could mess with the diversity and activity of the bacteria in your gut. This imbalance could lead to metabolic problems like obesity and type 2 diabetes. But if you keep your mouth healthy with good hygiene and dental care, it can help maintain balance in your gut bacteria and reduce your risk of metabolic issues.
    Immune system modulation: Your mouth is like a doorway to your body, and it’s full of good and bad bacteria. A healthy mouth keeps a good balance between these bacteria. But neglecting your mouth can allow bad bacteria to take over, causing inflammation and putting stress on your immune system. This constant inflammation can lead to all sorts of health issues throughout your body.
mouth examine

The easy ways to keep your smile healthy

Fortunately, maintaining excellent oral health is relatively simple and can significantly benefit your overall health. Here are some steps you can take:

female dental check up
  • Brushing and flossing: Remember to brush your teeth twice a day and floss daily. This helps remove plaque and bacteria, keeping your gums healthy and preventing gum disease.
  • Regular checkups: Don’t skip your dental check-ups. Regular visits to your dentist allow for early detection and treatment of any oral health issues before they become serious.
  • Healthy diet: Watch what you eat. A diet low in sugar and processed foods helps control the growth of harmful bacteria in your mouth, keeping your teeth and gums in good shape.
  • Quit smoking: If you smoke cigarettes, quitting can greatly improve your oral and overall health.

Taking care of your oral health is more important than ever. It’s not just about having a nice smile; it’s about safeguarding the health of your entire body. When you make an effort to brush, floss and see your dentist regularly, you’re not just looking out for your teeth; you’re also helping to lower your risk of developing serious health problems down the road.

Think of it this way: a clean, healthy mouth sets the stage for a healthy body and mind. It’s worth it to keep smiling, keep shining, and keep thriving!

* the image illustrates source

Willis, J. R., & Gabaldón, T. (2020). The Human Oral Microbiome in Health and Disease: From Sequences to Ecosystems. Microorganisms, 8(2), 308. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3390/microorganisms8020308

References:

Barboza-Solís, Cristina, & Acuña-Amador, Luis Alberto. (2020). The Oral Microbiota: A Literature Review for Updating Professionals in Dentistry. Part I. Odovtos International Journal of Dental Sciences, 22(3), 59-68. https://dx.doi.org/10.15517/ijds.2020.39178

Lohiya, D. V., Mehendale, A. M., Lohiya, D. V., Lahoti, H. S., & Agrawal, V. N. (2023). Effects of Periodontitis on Major Organ Systems. Cureus, 15(9), e46299. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.46299

Maier T. (2023). Oral Microbiome in Health and Disease: Maintaining a Healthy, Balanced Ecosystem and Reversing Dysbiosis. Microorganisms, 11(6), 1453. https://doi.org/10.3390/microorganisms11061453

Massachusetts Department of Public Health. (2021). Chronic Disease & Oral Health Overview. Retrieved from https://www.mass.gov/doc/chronic-disease-oral-health-overview/download

Olsen, I., & Yamazaki, K. (2019). Can oral bacteria affect the microbiome of the gut?. Journal of oral microbiology, 11(1), 1586422. https://doi.org/10.1080/20002297.2019.1586422

Peng, X., Cheng, L., You, Y., et al. (2022). Oral microbiota in human systematic diseases. International Journal of Oral Science, 14, 14. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41368-022-00163-7

Willis, J. R., & Gabaldón, T. (2020). The Human Oral Microbiome in Health and Disease: From Sequences to Ecosystems. Microorganisms, 8(2), 308. https://doi.org/10.3390/microorganisms8020308

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