The Northern Daily Leader

Healthy mouth, healthy body: How caring for your teeth and gums protects the rest of you

Inflamed gums are a symptom of gum disease. Picture Shutterstock
Inflamed gums are a symptom of gum disease. Picture Shutterstock

This is branded content for Tamworth Complete Dental.

If you knew that the bad bacteria in your mouth could increase your risk of diabetes would you take more care during your dental routine? How about heart disease, stroke or Alzheimer's?

Evidence showing the links between oral health and many chronic health conditions continues to grow but frustratingly for dentists and other health practitioners most people aren't aware of the connection.

In its annual consumer survey in 2022, the Australian Dental Association found more than 65 per cent of Australians were unaware of the link between their mouth and their body's overall health, while 20 per cent of people are only brushing once a day and 75 per cent say they rarely or never floss.

For Tamworth dentist Dr Vera Stephenson these statistics are hugely concerning.

"It's frustrating and surprising to me that so many Australians aren't aware of that link and still think of their teeth in isolation to the rest of their body," said Dr Stephenson, who operates Tamworth Complete Dental.

"This is at a time when untreated decay is the most common health condition and we have persistent high levels of gum disease in our communities.

"More needs to be done to get this public health message to people and increase the understanding of this proven link between diseases in the mouth and diseases in the body, why it makes good oral health and a focus on dental disease prevention even more important."

Bacterial overload

Dr Stephenson said research has shown bacteria in the mouth can travel to different sites of the body through the blood stream, and inflammation in the mouth can increase overall inflammation throughout the body.

"Any inflammation in the mouth affects pretty much any chronic disease that is inflammatory - diabetes is the biggest one. If you have inflammation in the mouth - gum disease - it worsens your blood sugar control and worsens diabetes," she said.

"There is a huge relationship between gum disease and blood sugar control. One study showed that just controlling the gum disease in patients improved the diabetes as much as going on diabetes medication."

The spread of bacteria from the mouth to the bloodstream can contribute to the development of cardiovascular problems. Picture Shutterstock
The spread of bacteria from the mouth to the bloodstream can contribute to the development of cardiovascular problems. Picture Shutterstock

Heart disease and stroke are other identified risks, as well as Alzheimer's disease, asthma and other lung diseases, inflammatory bowel disease and adverse pregnancy outcomes such as preterm births and lower birth weights.

"Heart disease is a major one - the bacteria are constant and the mouth has a lot of blood flow to it," said Dr Stephenson. "When that bacteria spreads from the mouth into the bloodstream it goes to the heart and can potentially cause inflammation and development of cardiovascular problems.

"We talk about bacterial burden on the body as a whole. Your body has to control inflammation and bacterial toxins and if we're getting more toxins released by bad bacteria in our gums then we're increasing the inflammatory markers and the burden of bacteria on our body. When you go over the body's threshold all diseases get worse."

The connection between the mouth and the stomach and the impact of oral disease on the balance of the important microbiome in the gut is another area of concern, with growing evidence of links to inflammatory bowel disease and cancer.

"From our mouth to our gut is one continuous connected tube so if we're creating an environment for bad aggressive bacteria in your mouth, you're swallowing them constantly," said Dr Stephenson.

"In our mouth we have a whole microflora and community of different bacteria, but if the whole system gets dysregulated, if we have aggressive-bacteria-growing gum disease, and they're communicating to the gut bacteria, it can start to change the body's immune response."

Better health for the next generation

Dentists, along with others in the healthcare industry, have long been calling for measures to boost access to, and the take up of, dental services in Australia to address the state of dental health.

The Australian Government is now considering its response to the recent Senate inquiry into the Provision of and Access to Dental Services in Australia that outlined a series of options to improve oral health by making dental care more affordable for all.

Dr Stephenson would like to see a big emphasis on preventative dental care, such as access to regular dental check ups, and a shift away from the current culture she believes is too focused on just treating the results of poor oral health.

She says any scheme to boost access needs to be accompanied by investment in an educational campaign, in a similar way to the successful Quit Smoking and Slip Slop Slap campaigns, to promote the importance of dental health for overall health and wellbeing.

"Dental care doesn't get approached in the right way - we treat dental health in a very reactive fashion waiting for someone to have an issue and then put a filling in it and patching it up," said Dr Stephenson.

"But it's important that we change that approach and increase people's understanding of dental health so that we can set our kids up and we don't have these same problems in the next generations."