There’s a complex relationship between your mouth and body.

The human body is complex and multifaceted, and there’s a lot about it that we’re still discovering or don’t yet understand. One relationship that scientists are interested in is the connection between your oral and overall health. It’s easy to assume your mouth is isolated and can’t possibly have an impact on your heart or brain, but studies are beginning to reveal a stunning and complex connection between your mouth and the rest of your body. Here are a few facts about that connection and how it may change the way you approach your oral health.

1. Gum disease is linked to increased health risks.

Recent studies have linked gum disease to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, an infection of the heart called endocarditis, diabetes, cancer, and stroke. This is because when you have periodontitis, bacteria gets under your gumline, and from there, it can enter your bloodstream, which is where scientists believe the problems begin. Your body responds naturally by triggering inflammation, which is good for fighting infections in the short term but can be harmful for extended periods of time. The inflammation caused by long-term periodontitis may promote the buildup of plaque in your arteries and trigger blood clots, which can, in turn, cause heart attacks and strokes. During one study conducted by researchers in Finland, oral bacteria were found in the brain clots of patients who had ischemic strokes, which is the most common type of stroke. While more studies need to be done to shed more light on the exact link between gum disease and these increased health risks, there’s clearly a link we need to be aware of.

2. It can negatively impact pregnancies.

Scientists have also discovered that gum disease can cause problems for pregnancies. Expecting mothers who have gum disease are four to seven times more likely to give birth prematurely or have a baby with a low birth weight. Premature and low birth weight babies are at a high risk of developing infections, as well as a range of short- and long-term health problems. This makes it even more important for pregnant women to keep a close eye on their oral health.

3. Several factors can increase your risk of gum disease.

We have shared evidence that gum disease increases your risk of several different health issues, but the mouth-body connection goes both ways; there are several factors regarding your overall health that can increase your risk of gum disease. The hormone changes that come with puberty, menstruation, and pregnancy can make you more susceptible to gum disease, as can health issues that decrease your resistance to infection, like diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, this relationship can be even more complex for people with diabetes. They’re at a higher risk of getting gum disease, especially if their diabetes isn’t well-controlled, which, in turn, makes it harder for them to manage their diabetes since gum disease raises blood sugar levels.

4. Oral hygiene is a major key to decreasing these risks.

The good news is that gum disease is easy to prevent; all you need to do is stick to a good oral hygiene routine. You should brush your teeth for two minutes twice a day, floss and use mouthwash at least once a day, and visit your dentist for an evaluation every six months. Flossing is a particularly crucial part of preventing gum disease, so don’t skip it during your nightly routine! Your dentist is trained to spot issues early and may recommend that you floss more often or use a mouthwash designed to help fight gingivitis. You should watch out for the signs of gum disease, which include:

  • Gums that bleed easily when you floss or brush your teeth
  • Tender or swollen gums
  • Red or purple gums
  • Persistent bad breath
  • Pus
  • Deep pockets forming between your teeth and gums
  • Loose teeth

In addition to the increased health risks, severe gum disease is the biggest cause of tooth loss in America, so if you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important that you call your dentist to schedule an appointment right away. Minor gum disease, called gingivitis, can usually be solved by flossing regularly and using an antibacterial mouthwash, but periodontitis is severe and usually requires more extensive treatments.

5. You can fight gum disease and decrease health risks with a healthier lifestyle.

You can also actively decrease your risk of contracting many of these health issues and developing gum disease by taking care of your body as a whole. Exercise is a well-known way to keep yourself healthier and decrease your risk of many different health issues, like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke, but several studies have found that it also decreases your risk of getting gum disease and may help improve existing cases of it. You can also improve the health of your entire body, including your teeth and gums, by committing to a healthy diet and quitting harmful habits, like smoking. You don’t have to give up dessert or chips altogether, but you should cook balanced meals at home and replace unhealthy snacks with fruits or vegetables. This gives your body and teeth necessary vitamins and minerals, and tough vegetables, like carrots, rub plaque off your teeth as you chew.

The complexity of our bodies may seem to be working against us, but this web of connections also offers some benefits. Similar to how negative habits can have many harmful effects on your body, taking care of both your oral and overall health can help prevent a wide range of health issues. If you suspect that you have gum disease, feel free to schedule an evaluation with your dentist at any time, so you can put yourself on a path to a longer, healthier life.