Your eyes may be the mirrors to your soul, but your gums might be the mirrors of your health. Most of us see a dentist for our teeth and our doctors for everything else, and never the twain shall meet. However, more and more research shows that poor oral health - gum health, specifically - is related to your overall health and wellness.
Gum disease impacts health. Periodontal disease is an inflammation and/or infection of the tissue - the gums - that surrounds and supports the teeth. Symptoms may include swollen or bleeding gums and sensitive teeth. Untreated, the disease can lead to receding gums and eventually, loss of teeth.
Recently, scientists have found a relationship between gum health and overall body health. In some cases, gum disease may increase the risk of developing a chronic disease such as heart disease, and in other cases may be a warning sign of existing disease. The mechanisms behind these connections vary from disease to disease, but many are related to inflammation or the spread of bacteria.
Several conditions may have a link to periodontal disease, including stroke and osteoporosis; and respiratory illnesses, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia. Two of the most significant conditions include coronary heart disease (CHD) and chronic kidney disease (CKD). The first kills more than half a million Americans each year and the second affects approximately 26 million Americans. The link between these conditions and gum disease is inflammation; high levels of C-reactive protein, which serves as a marker of inflammation in your body, are a big risk factor for both CHD and CKD.
The relationship between diabetes and poor oral health goes in both directions. First, the fact of having diabetes increases the risk of developing gum disease. If you already have diabetes and then develop periodontal disease, the infection may present challenges in controlling or managing your diabetes. Finally, recent research shows that periodontal disease may actually increase your risk of developing both type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes.
Pregnancy is also impacted by gum health. Although studies conflict regarding gum disease and potential preterm labor and other pregnancy-related issues, it does appear that pregnancy increases a woman's risk of developing periodontal disease. Therefore, for the mother's health and perhaps the baby's as well, good oral hygiene is crucial during pregnancy.
Fortunately, as with many chronic diseases, you can take steps to lower your risk of periodontal disease; many are diet-related.
•Eat a balanced diet and adequate calories. Poor eating habits and insufficient calories can lead to malnutrition. Malnutrition can alter saliva, which plays a key role in maintaining a healthy mouth. A poor diet can change the amount and kind of saliva produced. It also can have a negative effect on the antibacterial properties in saliva, which can lead to an increased risk of infection.
•Include omega-3 fatty acids as a regular part of your diet. These types of fatty acids found in fish, and in plant foods like flaxseed, canola oil and walnuts, have been shown to have a beneficial effect on inflammation in other parts of the body, such as with heart disease. As gum disease has an inflammatory component and there's a relationship between heart disease and gum disease, it makes sense that foods that benefit one would benefit the other. And more recent research reveals that this assumption is true. A good goal to aim for is at least one serving of omega-3 rich fats every day. That could be in the form of a handful of walnuts in your morning oatmeal, a tablespoon of canola oil in your salad dressing at lunch, or a 3-ounce serving of a fatty fish, like salmon, at dinner.
•Eat enough vitamin C to help maintain healthy collagen. Collagen, a protein that forms connective fibers, plays a big role in anchoring your teeth to your gums. Usually one serving per day of a vitamin C-rich food can provide a day's worth of the nutrient. Foods high in vitamin C include oranges, 100 percent orange juice, red bell peppers, broccoli, strawberries, and cantaloupe.
•Consume calcium and vitamin D every day. These nutrients are important because of the key role they play in maintaining healthy bones and teeth. Aim for three to four servings of calcium- and vitamin D-rich foods and drinks a day. These include low-fat milk, yogurt, cheeses, and fortified foods.
•Be sure your daily diet includes foods rich in vitamin A. This vitamin helps keep the tissue surrounding the gums healthy. Vitamin A-rich foods include carrots, sweet potato, spinach, and red bell peppers.