THE BLOG
05/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mouth Health: Your Overall Body Health and Your Mouth's Relationship to It

So, how healthy are you?

I ask this, because for a lot of people, they aren't quite as healthy as they might think. While weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index (BMI) and many other "numbers" are an indication of health, there are other factors. Today's topic will explore one that many people don't think much about -- your teeth, and how they can affect your overall health.

To start, when it comes to the concept of "good health," there is no shortage of topics and suggestions people have in maintaining a healthy body and lifestyle. Some of the more common practices and suggestions are fairly standard, and could even be considered more along the lines of "common sense," such as maintaining a proper diet, exercising, reducing stress, keeping a set sleep schedule, taking vitamins, and (of course) getting regular checkups through a doctor.

I'd like to add "see your dentist regularly" to that list. Because your teeth can (and will) affect your overall health.

"Ok Dr. Connelly, how can teeth affect a person's overall health?" one might ask. And it's a fair question, because on the surface, a tooth problem "seems" to be isolated to just the mouth area. But while problems may start there, the ill effects can travel to other parts of the body as well.

Proper dental hygiene is very important, and symptoms such as bleeding or swollen gums, bad breath, or soreness in the mouth can give insight to larger issues within the body. Tooth decay leads to a lot more than just a sore mouth. Doctors have linked poor dental hygiene to a number of body issues such as thinning hair, bacterial infections, heart problems, respiratory issues, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease. In other words, not taking care of one's teeth can have damaging, and even fatal results.

But how can this happen? Keep in mind that the mouth is essentially a portal to the entire body, and as such, it is how we primarily put things (such as food, drink, and medicine) into our body. It is also how people can invite bacteria in. An increase of bacteria in the mouth can lead to infection entering the bloodstream, which can spread throughout the body, and makes it harder to fight off.

These bacteria can cause other issues such as acid reflux, which in turn can wear down and damage teeth every time that condition flares up (this creates a circular problem -- bacteria creates the acid reflux, which weakens teeth, which creates more bacteria, which increases the acid reflux, and so on). And there is also a concern for oral cancer, which can increase the susceptibility of major illness and an early death in more extreme cases.

While all of this sounds pretty grim, and can give cause for alarm, there is a fairly simple solution to combat the problem: Brush and floss your teeth, and see a dentist for regular check-ups. Issues such as prolonged swelling or bleeding of the gums are the same as any other type of health issue. A person wouldn't ignore a persistent cold or prolonged sharp pain in their chest or arms and legs, so it is just as important to treat the mouth with the same sense of vigilance and consideration. Basically, if there is some pain or irritation in the mouth that does not clear up on its own after two weeks, then there may be a larger problem at hand.

Mouth care is a really simple process as long as it is performed regularly. An annual visit to the dentist can keep track of or prevent the progress of any major dental issues. And if problems do arise, most conditions can be treated though a simple cleaning and/or medicated toothpaste. In larger instances, a solution may call for filling in a cavity, getting braces or dentures, or require more in-depth surgery depending on the situation.

The important things to remember to keep one's teeth (and by extension, the body) healthy is to eat meals that contain natural fruits, vegetables and wheat products that are not loaded up with sugar or high acidic content. It is also important to clean one's teeth after every meal. This doesn't mean that a toothbrush must be kept on hand at all times, but flossing and even cleansing one's palette with water after a meal can get rid of food build-up and those extra lingering sugars that tend to stick around in the mouth.

Keeping a healthy set of teeth is largely dependent on proper care and sticking to a regular habitual schedule of cleaning and check-ups. Not only does it provide for a nicer smile and fresher breath, it keeps any unwanted bacteria out of the body's system, making "you" run as smoothly as possible.

Keep smiling!