Learning to care for your whole body health.
These days, it almost goes without saying that your entire body is interconnected, with the health of one part impacting every other part. We’re even learning more about the vital connection between mental and physical health, but there’s another connection that you might not be aware of yet: the connection between your mouth and the rest of your body. When we put it like that, it sounds obvious that the two are connected, but we often think about oral health issues as separate from our overall health. After all, cavities, gum disease, and periodontitis are issues that stay in our mouths…right?
In reality, oral health issues can have a surprising impact on more than just your teeth and gums, potentially creating long-term issues with your overall health. Multiple studies have found that oral health issues like periodontitis may increase your risk of developing certain cancers. Thankfully, there is good news about this connection! Understanding it and why your oral health impacts you this way, as well as using this knowledge to better care for your oral and overall health, can help you prevent future health issues like these. But what do we know about this connection, and what can you do now to safeguard your future health? To help you live a longer, healthier life, we’ve put together the answers.
What is periodontitis?
Periodontitis is an advanced form of gum disease, in which bacteria attack your gums and cause them to pull away from your teeth. This allows bacteria to make it underneath your gum line, attacking your tooth roots and other supporting structures of your teeth.
Periodontitis is often painless until it’s advanced, but it also causes symptoms like gums that are red, swollen, sore, have darkened in color, or bleed easily. Even a simple task like brushing your teeth may cause your gums to bleed when you have periodontitis. You may also notice bad breath or a bad taste in your mouth that doesn’t go away even after brushing your teeth, pockets forming between your teeth and gums, changes in the way your bite fits together, and sensitive or loose teeth.
With so many potentially serious symptoms, periodontitis is more difficult to treat than gingivitis, which is a more minor form of gum disease, but it’s still treatable with the help of Dr. Edwards or Dr. Burton. It’s always best to treat gum disease as quickly as possible, though, so if you notice any of the signs of gum disease, you should schedule an appointment with your dentist right away.
Why is it important to treat it as early as possible?
Just like other health issues, it’s best to treat gum disease as early as possible because periodontitis can do permanent damage to your teeth and gums if it goes untreated for too long. It can cause issues like gum recession, tooth sensitivity, the formation of permanent pockets between your teeth and gums, changes in your bite, and even tooth loss. Even once your periodontitis has been treated, the resulting oral health issues can remain and require further treatments if you want to reduce or eliminate their impact on the health, function, or appearance of your smile.
Untreated periodontitis can also release oral bacteria into your bloodstream, potentially leading to a range of overall health issues. These include problems like increased risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, pneumonia, a weakened immune system, and a harder time controlling type 2 diabetes. There have even been multiple studies linking periodontitis to an increased risk of developing several types of cancer. These risks make it more than worth it to ensure that your gums are as healthy as they can be. The earlier you treat periodontal disease, the healthier you’ll be—and the easier it will be to regain your health, since gum disease is much easier to treat when you catch it early.
What is the connection between periodontitis and cancer?
There have been a lot of studies on the link between periodontitis and different types of cancers, and many of those studies have found consistent results. Even when accounting for factors that increase cancer risks, like smoking and socioeconomic status, studies have found that patients with severe periodontitis have an increased risk of certain cancers, particularly lung and colorectal cancers. Experts believe the link to these particular cancers, as opposed to cancers like breast or blood cancer, is because oral bacteria can make it directly into the lungs or digestive tract by being breathed in or swallowed. Once there, they can increase inflammation levels, which, in turn, can increase the risk of developing cancer.
The introduction of oral bacteria to the bloodstream can also cause widespread inflammation and a weakened immune system, which may also play a role. This may also be why studies have found a small increase in the likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer, but experts aren’t entirely sure what has caused that link and more research needs to be done to discover why.
How can you limit your risks of both periodontitis and cancer?
There is an advantage to knowing that this link between periodontitis and certain cancers exists—it helps you know what you should do to limit your risks of both conditions. The bacteria and other microorganisms in your body, collectively referred to as your microbiota, have a sizable impact on your overall health. While some microbes in your body can be harmful, many are actively beneficial, playing roles in essential functions like digestion and even strengthening your immune system.
Your mouth’s microbiota impacts the microbiota in your gut, so it’s always important to take care of both. Thankfully, caring for it is often as simple as caring for your whole body health, including eating a healthy, balanced diet. What you eat fuels your body, so your diet impacts your entire body’s health, from your heart health right down to the makeup of your microbiota. It’s neat when you think about it—and it can work in our favor when we’re eating right!
If your doctor recommends it, probiotics can also be a great way to help improve and balance the microbes in your gut. It’s important to stick to the usual methods used to reduce cancer risk as well, like regular exercise and avoiding harmful habits such as tobacco use, but there are also ways to reduce your risk through your oral health.
Oral health habits to safeguard your whole body health.
Practicing great oral hygiene is a vital part in preventing both periodontitis and related cancers because it keeps the bacteria in your mouth in check. This improves your oral health and prevents large numbers of harmful bacteria in your mouth from making it into your digestive tract or lungs. A solid oral hygiene routine should include brushing your teeth for two minutes twice a day, flossing at least once a day, and using mouthwash daily. Flossing is particularly important for preventing periodontitis because it breaks up bacteria along the gum line and between your teeth, where toothbrushes just can’t reach. Regular dental cleanings are also an incredibly important part of prevention and early diagnosis. They allow your dentist to clean your teeth thoroughly and to spot issues like gum disease or cavities early. Plus, your dentist does regular screenings for issues like oral cancer, giving you the best chance of early diagnosis, and, in turn, a better chance for a full recovery.
We still have a lot to learn about the intricate connection between your oral and overall health and the specific link between periodontitis and certain cancers. What we already know, however, doesn’t have to be bad news—it can help you live a healthier, longer, higher-quality life. If you’d like to learn more or get started safeguarding your future health, feel free to schedule a consultation with Dr. Edwards or Dr. Burton at our Ada family dentistry office.