Our mouth—the window to our body
Regarding our column last week on the connection between oral hygiene and cardiovascular health, Marita Santos of San Pedro, Laguna, shares that her uncle died from a heart attack at the age of 45. He had bad teeth and gums due to heavy smoking consuming two packs per day; and looking back, she thinks that his dental caries and gum problems might have triggered his heart attack.
Well, it’s possible that his dental and gum problems contributed to the development of a premature or early heart disease, although his smoking and possibly other unhealthy lifestyle practices (lack of exercise, high-fat diet, stress, etc.) could have also played a contributory role.
As we stated last week, the scientific data are not that conclusive yet, but there’s good reason to believe that oral health can impact not only the cardiovascular health, but overall medical health as well.
In the same symposium during the Philippine Dental Association convention last week, Dr. Cecille Jimeno, current president of the Philippine Society of Endocrinology and Metabolism—the association of specialists in diabetes and hormonal disorders in the country—also spoke on the strong link between oral health and the development of diabetes.
The mechanism is basically the same as that in the development of cardiovascular disease. With bad teeth and swollen gums, inflammatory substances are released in the body which can promote the development of insulin resistance that leads to diabetes.
In fact the development of diabetes can be the intermediate step in the development of heart disease. It is now well-established that diabetes is a heart-disease equivalent. And any risk factor which causes diabetes can also cause heart disease.
There are early data also linking poor oral health to bone problems (osteoporosis), Alzheimer’s disease and all sorts of body infections due to a weakened immune system.
We may not realize it, but our mouth is a potential source of bacterial infection. As we can see in many TV advertisements promoting toothpastes, the mouth is teeming with bacteria. Under normal conditions, most of the bacteria present in the mouth are harmless. With regular brushing and flossing, plus the body’s natural defenses, the bacteria are kept under control. However, for those with poor oral hygiene, the bacteria can proliferate extensively, causing tooth decay and gum disease.
Slow, insidious process
The bacteria can also get into the bloodstream and start to cause a slow but progressive swelling of the lining of the arteries called endothelial dysfunction. This triggers a series of events leading to blockage of the artery and which can end into a heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, leg gangrene and other cardiovascular complications.
This, of course, does not happen overnight. It’s not the type of bacterial infection in the bloodstream characterized by high-grade fever and marked debility. It’s a slow, insidious process, and can take years or even decades to cause serious damage; but if one does not watch out, it might be too late already to address the problem. Proper oral health plus a regular visit to the dentist should help address the problem.
There are also some drugs like decongestants, antihistamines, painkillers and diuretics—which can reduce saliva flow and dryness of the mouth. Dryness of mouth can also stimulate bacteria proliferation.
Our saliva has a natural protective mechanism which helps wash away food particles. It also helps neutralize the acids formed by bacteria in the mouth. So, our saliva helps protect us from the overgrowth of bacteria in the mouth which can trigger the development of disease. We should always be properly hydrated especially when taking in drugs that tend to promote dryness of the mouth.
Oral health is called the “window” to one’s overall health. Some dentists would say, “Let me see what kind of teeth and gums you have, and I’ll tell you how healthy or unhealthy you are.” Let’s make sure we always keep our “window” in good condition.
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