co-written by Rick Olazabal, BSc, BN
When we hear about “digestion” we often think food, stomach and gut. While the gut plays a vital role in our wellbeing, digestion is not restricted to this part of the digestive tract.
As a matter of fact, digestion begins in your mouth, and oral hygiene plays an equally important part in your overall health. This article explores how your oral health can affect your wellbeing…and it may also make your dentist very happy…
How teeth and mouth health can affect our digestion?
According to the WHO, “Oral health is a state of being free from chronic mouth and facial pain, oral and throat cancer, oral sores, birth defects such as cleft lip and palate, periodontal (gum) disease, tooth decay and tooth loss, and other diseases and disorders that affect the oral cavity.”
Your oral health can offer clues about your overall health, and conversely, poor oral hygiene can, and will, affect the rest of your body. Your mouth is a bacterial haven, most of which are harmless and help in digesting some food particles. Some foods, like sugars, will be digested by these bacteria and the byproduct are acids that erode your enamel. When this happens, the tooth becomes susceptible to heat, cold and mastication (i.e. chewing) can become discomforting and painful.
Moreover, oral bacteria can also hide in the space between your teeth and cause damage to your gums deep down where you can’t see it (in the early stages) and make their way to the heart, where it can lead to inflammation of destruction of the valves, thus affecting your cardiovascular health. Certain medications (e.g. antihistamines, painkillers and diuretics) reduce saliva production. This is important because saliva neutralizes acids produced by bacteria in the mouth and contains enzymes that aid in the digestion of carbohydrates before they reach the gut.
What kind of minor mouth ailment might affect digestion
Minor mouth ailments can be a huge pain—in more ways than one. For example, mouth ulcers (aphthous stomatitis) can be very painful, and while we don’t know exactly what causes them they may be linked to biological, chemical and psychological stressors—that is, something you’ve ingested wasn’t tolerated or digested well by the body, and may be causing irritation and inflammation of the digestive tract.
Similarly, your stress level can also be a contributing factor for minor mouth ailments as well as major digestive complaints. When you’re stressed out your body is on “high alert” and this gives preference to the “fight or flight” response (sympathetic nervous response) at the expense of digestive functions (parasympathetic nervous response). When this goes on for some time symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) become apparent (e.g. changes in stool, oral/tongue ulcers). People with irritable bowel disease (i.e. IBD) and gluten enteropathy can have ulcerations in the oral cavity as well, and stress can be a major precipitating factor.
Sometimes we don’t recognize signs of stress—or we hide it quite well—but they come out at night, and a cornerstone of this is clenching your teeth during sleep. Chronic teeth clenching can lead to attrition (i.e. wearing down) of your teeth, jaw pain, facial pain, and headache. These conditions, in turn, can affect your mood, your behaviour (e.g. take meds, which can impact absorption of nutrients; smoke, which can damage your oral cavity some more), and your dietary choices, thus adding on to the negative cycle of stress and digestive discomfort.
What kind of health disturbances arise from bad oral health?
Believe it or not the health of teeth is directly related to the health of your heart! Each time your gums bleed, bacteria in your mouth enters the bloodstream and circulation. Bacteria not cleared out by cells of the immune system can lodge themselves in organs such as the heart, primarily heart valves, and cause problems down the line. These are some of the conditions related to poor oral hygiene:
- Endocarditis: infection of the inner lining of your heart (endocardium).
- Cardiovascular disease: clogged arteries and stroke might be linked to the inflammation and infections that oral bacteria can cause.
- Birth complications: periodontitis has been linked to premature birth and low birth weight.
- Alzheimer’s disease: tooth loss before age 35 may be another risk facto
- Osteoporosis: may also be linked with periodontal bone loss and tooth loss.
It is also worth noting that conditions such as diabetes and HIV reduce the body’s resistance to infection — putting the gums at risk. Gum disease appears to be more frequent and severe among people who have diabetes and HIV. For more information, speak with your dentist.
What else can be done
The best way to maintain your oral health is to practice good oral hygiene:
- Brush your teeth regularly – look for a toothpaste free of fluoride, parabens (preservatives) or sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS).
- Floss as much as possible (one of the few times when “more” is be better)
- Go in for a dental check-up
- Replace your toothbrush a few times a year (your dentist or hygienist will let you know)
- Avoid tobacco use (major risk for oral cancer)
- Avoid sugary foods and carbonated drinks (due to enamel erosion and cavity formation)
While there aren’t specific “natural” remedies, you can get creative and make your own mouth rinse by adding a few drops of peppermint and tea tree oil to a cup of water, then swirl and gargle with it.
But remember, when in doubt, speak with your dental hygienist or dentist. If your clench your teeth at night, ask for a mouth guard, but remember to address the root cause of your stress and tackle it head on.