It’s common knowledge that brushing your teeth regularly prevents cavities, bad breath, and painful trips to the dentist.
But what about heart disease, diabetes or cancer?
“The mouth is not disconnected from the rest of the body,” says Francesco D’Aiuto, a lecturer from the Eastman Dental Institute in London.
“People should not underestimate what the body senses when the mouth is neglected.”
Over the past decade, there’s been a boon of new studies linking oral health to illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease. The likeliest explanation is the aforementioned inflammation; it’s a similar sensation to stubbing your toe or getting an infected splinter, only it isn’t temporary, and can’t be ‘switched off.’
This chronic inflammation is damaging to cells and the DNA they contain.
“Inflammation seems to be associated with far more diseases than we’ve traditionally thought,” explained Francis Hughes, professor of periodontology at King’s College London.
How does the mouth become inflamed specifically? Brushing teeth is the best way to remove plaque, a sticky mix of bacteria and waste materials. Bacterias in plaque produces acid that erodes tooth enamel and causes cavities. But other bacterias thrive within the plaque, triggering inflamed gums.
“The bacteria that cause gum disease like to be buried deep down in areas where there isn’t any oxygen, so if you have thick bacterial plaques, they like that,” Hughes continued.
“When you have gum disease, the gums are effectively ulcerated inside, so they’re not forming a tight seal. Every time you eat or brush your teeth, it pushes bacteria into the body and triggers inflammation.”
There’s evidence of a direct link to diabetes through gum disease, too. D’Aiuto published a study in PLoS One examining the impact of treating gum disease in people with Type 2 diabetes. The gum treatment reduced inflammation, which in turn helped the patients’ control blood glucose levels.
The case for cancer via gum disease isn’t as strong.
“It’s plausible, but it’s not at all clear what the precise mechanism might be,” says Hughes.
But a study published in Immunity earlier this year showed a bacteria associated with gum disease, fusobacterium nucleatum, inhibits the immune system from recognizing and destroying cancer cells.
So how can you keep yourself free from inflammation? Well, the classic brushing your teeth two times a day with fluoride toothpaste is a good start, along with frequent trips to the dentist. If you really want to fight that plaque, the Cochrane Oral Health Group, an international network that reviews the products for dental treatments, recommends power toothbrushes over the traditional hand-brushing technique.
“If you were to choose a toothbrush it would be a power toothbrush, ideally with a rotating oscillating action, and if you were to choose a toothpaste it would be one containing 1,500ppm fluoride and an antibacterial agent called triclosan,” said Helen Worthington, the director of the group.