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The mouth, body, mind connection: The incredible role your oral health plays in your overall health

By: Daniel W. Croley, DMD, Chief Dental Officer at Delta Dental of California and Affiliates

It can be said that if our eyes are the window to our soul, then our mouth is a mirror to our health. While this may seem farfetched, the truth is that one of the first indicators of poor health may be trouble in our mouths.

Yet, although the science is clear, for many people the connection still isn’t being made between our oral health and our overall health.

A disease that starts with our teeth or gums can have profound effects on our body, mind and quality of life. Despite this, we continue to separate dental health from general health, including mental and psychosocial health — things like self-esteem, emotional health and confidence. This can lead to a decline in overall well-being and have a severe impact on our daily lives.

Nearly half of the adult population in the U.S. suffers from some form of gum disease — the leading cause of tooth loss — and, according to national health data, over 34 million school hours are lost each year because of unplanned dental care.

The stakes are incredibly high. So, why don’t we treat our teeth like the rest of our bodies? In recognition of World Oral Health Day, let’s dive into how your mouth is directly connected to your body, mind and overall well-being.

Your Mouth is the Gateway to Your Body

When it comes to oral health and the health of your body, the research is clear. A new study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH),  “Oral Health in America: Advances and Challenges”, reported that periodontal or gum disease, which is red, inflamed, bleeding gums, is related to nearly 60 diseases in the body. The most prevalent being diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

What happens with this synergistic connection is that the mouth acts as a portal to the rest of the body. If your teeth and gums have inflammation, bacteria or decay, that bacteria travels to the bloodstream where it can set up shop in other parts of the body like your heart, lungs and brain.

People with diabetes may not realize that when you treat your diabetes effectively, gum disease improves. Likewise, when you improve your periodontal disease, more commonly known as gum disease, your need for insulin decreases.

One 2021 study found that if you have gum disease your risk for diabetes increases 26% and if you have diabetes, your risk for gum disease increases 24%. They go hand in hand like dozens of other diseases.

Think of your oral health like getting a cut on your arm. If the wound becomes red, inflamed and swollen, that is an infection you need to take care of. If you don’t get antibiotics to treat it, that infection can enter your bloodstream and make you extremely sick. In the same way, taking care of your oral health helps prevent bacteria and inflammation from traveling from your mouth and gums to other parts of your body, causing disease.

What you can do for your Oral Health / Body Prevention:

  • Young children should see the dentist by age one to help them get comfortable going regularly. Don’t let your fear and anxiety of the dentist transfer to your kids. Let them develop a healthy relationship with getting their teeth treated.
  • Children should have fluoride treatment and sealants to prevent cavities. Make sure kids brush and floss twice a day.
  • Adults should see their dentist twice a year, drink fluoridated water, and brush and floss twice daily.
  • Talk to your dentist AND doctor about the connection between your oral health and the health of your body.

Your Mouth is Connected to Your Mental Health

Data shows that two-thirds of people with depression also reported having a toothache, which underscores the significance of the link between your mouth and your mind. When you’re distracted, sad, anxious or stressed, it’s difficult to keep up with your health, including good oral care. In other words, if you’re feeling blue, your teeth may be hurting, too.

There’s a significant connection between oral health and your mental health. Brushing and flossing can be one of the first dominoes to fall when someone can’t get out of bed or is facing difficult mental health challenges. What’s more, depression can cause you to skip dental visits, become lax with oral hygiene, and even self-medicate with things like alcohol, candy and smoking, which unchecked can take a toll on your teeth and gums.

Anxiety can cause stress that increases cortisol levels, a hormone that ramps up in times of distress and can weaken your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to inflammation and gum disease. People with anxiety can also be susceptible to grinding their teeth (bruxism), canker sores or dry mouth.

What you can do for your Oral Health / Mind Prevention:

  • Talk with your doctor or therapist about better ways to control anxiety or depression.
  • Try not to skip your dental checkups. If you miss your routine oral healthcare visit, reschedule it as soon as you can.
  • Talk with both your doctor and dentist about any oral health side effects of your medication.

Your Mouth Affects Your Quality of Life

Nearly 18% of working adults report the appearance of their teeth affects their ability to interview for a job and the number increases to 29% for people with low income (CDC). In our current culture’s mindset, we all want to have big, straight and super white teeth. But this focuses solely on aesthetics, which may not be an indicator of good oral health.

Crooked, missing or non-functioning teeth can affect your confidence and self-esteem. It’s been shown to affect everything from academic achievement to performance in job interviews.

As importantly, if you have pain or can’t eat foods you love, these issues can impair not only your enjoyment in life but the psychosocial skills that help you become a successful person. In fact, if you tend to put your hand over your mouth a lot or refrain from smiling, that can change not only how you feel about yourself but how others feel about you.

What you can do for your Oral Health/ Quality of Life Prevention:

  • Talk to your dentist about how you feel about your teeth.
  • Don’t abandon oral care because you don’t like how your teeth look. Brush and floss daily.
  • There may be affordable options to make changes to your smile when it comes to color, shape, and missing or crooked teeth. Explore these with your dentist.

The misconception that dental problems and health issues are somehow separate from our overall health is a serious problem. Fortunately, it’s increasingly hard to ignore as we learn more about the direct link between the diseases that start in our mouth and how they can wreak havoc on the rest of our bodies.

As we talk more about our oral health issues with all our health professionals, we can strive to put the mouth back into the body and care for body, mind and spirit as one.

For more information on how to maintain healthy dental habits, check out Delta Dental’s Wellness Library for resources on oral health and tips on how to care for your whole self.

Daniel W. Croley, DMD, earned his BS and DMD degrees from the University of Kentucky and a GPR at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Louisville. After leaving private dental practice, Dr. Croley has held several positions leading dental networks and Informatics. Currently, as Chief Dental Officer, he sets strategic policy and direction and oversees the patient-centered approach to dental care delivery for Delta Dental of California, Delta Dental Insurance Company, Delta Dental of Pennsylvania and New York, and their affiliated companies.