Want to spend less on medical care? You could do far worse than making a bigger investment in keeping your mouth as healthy as it can be. The mass of evidence linking periodontal (gum) health and systemic health only continues to grow.
In fact, since our recent posts on gum disease, heart disease, and stroke, more studies highlighting the mouth/body connection have dropped. This includes research on the relationship of gum disease and Meniere disease, and another on its link with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Conditions like these have a number of things in common. The new RA research, for instance, identifies oral bacteria that appear to correspond to arthritic flare-ups. Similarly, oral bacteria have been found in the hearts of cardiovascular patients and in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
Another common denominator? Chronic inflammation.
Chronic Inflammation from Mouth to the Rest of the Body
Chronic inflammation is the hallmark of periodontal disease. It signals deepening infection in the soft tissues of the mouth. The body’s immune and other defense systems are on constant red alert, hustling to do all they can to clear the pathogens so the body can heal.
“Although the inflammatory processes occur locally in the oral cavity,” write the authors of a 2019 paper on periodontal disease and cancer, several studies have determined that inflammatory mediators produced during periodontitis, as well as subgingival species and bacterial components, can disseminate from the oral cavity, contributing therefore, to various extraoral diseases like cancer.
In other words, the local infection – gum disease – doesn’t stay local. Inflammatory markers such as cytokines, as well as harmful bacteria can spread through the body and contribute to disease far from the mouth. This concept is what’s known as focal infection theory.
At the same time, it’s been well documented that lifestyle factors contribute greatly to chronic inflammation – things like poor diet, lack of exercise, chronic stress, lack of quality sleep, and more. Notably, these are all also specific risk factors for gum disease.
Gum Disease Means a Higher Risk of Other Diseases
“Many recent studies explore the interrelationship between oral health, inflammation, and systemic disease,” write the authors of a 2019 review on perio/systemic health.
Oral microbiota can cause oral inflammation but may also directly contribute to systemic inflammation, increasing inflammation through the release of toxins or leakage of microbial products into the bloodstream. The association between oral inflammation and systemic inflammation is fundamental to understanding the detrimental effects of oral inflammation on several organ systems and the ability of oral disease to increase the risk of developing non-oral disease.
When the inflammation becomes chronic – ongoing, long-term – there can be significant effects on the immune system and, in turn, whole body health.
Shifts in the inflammatory response from short- to long-lived can cause a breakdown of immune tolerance and lead to major alterations in all tissues and organs, as well as normal cellular physiology, which can increase the risk for various non-communicable diseases in both young and older individuals. SCI [systemic chronic inflammation] can also impair normal immune function, leading to increased susceptibility to infections and tumors and a poor response to vaccines.
Indeed, one of the things that’s been seen with COVID is that poor oral health makes infection with the coronavirus that much more likely.
A System of Systems
You are not just a mouth and a body. Rather, you are a singular, magnificently designed system – a system of systems that interact with each other physically and energetically. Those interactions determine our level of health. One responsibility we each have is making sure we take good care of it, giving the mouth/body organism that you are all the resources it needs to thrive and steering clear of what will drag it down. Healthy food, not hyper-processed products. Regular exercise, not a life of sitting, staring at screens. Enough good quality sleep, not a few restless hours and the urge to nap through the day. Managing stress with strategies that keep it from managing you. You get the idea.
Both mouth and body – not to mention your immune system – will thank you.