The strange link between inflammation and oral health

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Oral health and inflammation quote

Did you know there is a link between inflammation and oral health? Find out more below.

Research on inflammation and oral health

Inflammation is a hot topic right now. Researchers are beginning to discover how the body’s response to perceived threats improves or worsens various conditions over time. It’s so crucial that many scientists think that it is fundamental to the aging process itself. As we get older, the tissues in our bodies start churning out inflammatory factors – and that accelerates the damage to our cells.

It should come as no surprise, then, that researchers are also interested in the link between inflammation and oral health. It seems to work both ways. Poor oral hygiene can lead to higher levels of body inflammation and vice versa.

What is inflammation?

When people talk about inflammation, they usually refer to it in loose terms, without really defining what they mean. Inflammation isn’t just soreness. It’s how the body responds to infection (or what it thinks is an infection).

Inflammation is actually a good thing when correctly applied. A robust immune response clears out foreign invaders and can keep people healthy.

Unfortunately, when inflammation continues for a long time, it can have adverse effects. The immune system begins to harm healthy cells, preventing them from functioning as they should. Eventually, inflammatory factors can comprise the operation of entire organs, like the liver and kidneys, causing severe disease.

The way inflammation works is surprisingly simple. When the body detects something foreign, like a virus, it sends a bunch of inflammatory signaling molecules to the affected area. These then activate the body’s first line of defense: large cells that attempt to eat and digest the invader.

Most of the time, these immune cells are successful, and we never even get sick. But sometimes, they can’t get to the target location. Other times, they can’t actually digest the particles because they have some kind of intelligent defense. When that happens, secondary immune responses start kicking in like coughing, fever, and mucus production.

You can see inflammation most clearly following injury. Even if there’s no infection, the body will warn the surrounding area and increase the blood supply to provide the site’s immune system access. It also generates pain to encourage you to keep the affected area still for a more effective repair.

Most of the time, your inflammation is acute, meaning that it comes and goes quickly. However, you can develop chronic inflammation, which persists for weeks or months on end. And that’s where oral health comes in.

The link between inflammation and oral health

Inflammation and oral health link with each other tightly. Just like an infected wound on your leg, tooth infections can also induce immune responses. If you have gum disease, you can feel this effect in action. Immune cells rush to the site, creating pus. And blood vessels dilate, creating swelling.

Many people with tooth infections, therefore, also have chronic inflammation. And it doesn’t just affect their teeth, either. All those inflammatory factors course around the rest of the body, leading to a host of negative consequences for tissues.

Oral health problems can develop early in life and continue for years, sometimes undetected. Sometimes infection leads to tooth loss, providing people to find treatments, like a snap in denture or implants. But other times, the immune response is “low level,” meaning that the patient doesn’t detect it. It keeps churning out inflammatory factors, making the person feel groggy, but there are no apparent signs.

The link between inflammation and oral health, however, is more complicated even than that. Yes, bacterial buildup in the mouth can lead to an overactive immune system. But the latter can also produce worse oral health.

Researchers are still trying to figure out precisely why this is the case. But their research leads them to believe that it has to do with the way bacteria interact with inflamed tissue.

When immune cells interact with the lining of the gum, they damage the thin film of cells that form a seal between the teeth and the tissue beneath supplied with blood. This “furring” from the inside then provides opportunities for bacteria to move in and take up residence. In contrast, usually, they’d bounce right off.

The combination of inflammation and poor diet, therefore, seems to provoke the development of gum disease. And it can progress even faster.

You can actually see the effects of this process yourself first-hand. When your teeth are inflamed, they appear redder than usual. You can also often see swelling around the back of the teeth.

If your wisdom teeth are the problem, you can experience severe periodontal disease at the back of the mouth. Bacteria carve out a “pocket” between the gum and the tooth, allowing them to thrive, and inducing a severe immune reaction.

How to reduce oral inflammation

Fortunately, there are many strategies that you can use to reduce oral inflammation and improve your overall health.

Go to the dentist when you notice oral health problems

Letting oral health problems linger is one of the most damaging things you can do. The sooner you can deal with problems, the less inflammation you’ll experience, and the less damage you’ll do to the tissue in your mouth.

Remember, bacteria don’t just damage the teeth and gums. They also burrow down to the underlying bone and start chewing their way through that too. Once this happens, it can be hard to shift the infection, and you may not be able to get implants.

Dentists will provide an immediate assessment of the state of your teeth and then offer antibiotics to deal with any infections. They will then investigate your mouth and provide preventative treatment to stop gum disease or cavities from returning.

Eat less junk food

Junk food is generally bad for teeth and one of the leading causes of oral inflammation. Foods that contain sugar and refined starch provide the food that bacteria in the mouth need to churn out acid. And it’s the acid that wears down teeth and gums, leading to a host of oral health issues.

Dentists are beginning to realize that what people eat is just as crucial to how much they brush. Candy is no longer the only enemy. It’s also “sticky” food that lingers in the spaces between teeth and gums.

Interestingly, sticky food isn’t always what you’d expect. It’s not necessary for chewy items. Instead, it can be anything that contains small particles that easily stick to gaps between teeth. White bread, for instance, breaks down into a smooth paste when chewed.

If in doubt, eat minimally-processed foods, or avoid them altogether.

Eat antioxidant-rich foods

The body has powerful antioxidant mechanisms that prevent it from essentially “rusting” from the inside out. The body’s defenses, however, aren’t perfect. Sometimes, oxygen damages cells and causes them to dysfunction, leading to inflammation. Evidence suggests, however, that eating foods rich in antioxidants can help tremendously. Communities that eat lots of berries and nuts tend to have excellent oral health.

Whether it is the antioxidant content itself remains an open question. But whatever the cause, certain foods can dampen the body’s inflammatory response. Thus, eating them is an excellent strategy for anybody who suspects that they might have a chronic inflammatory condition.

Concluding words on the inflammation and oral health relationship

Oral health is part and parcel of overall health, not something separate. What goes on in your mouth affects the rest of your body and vice versa. Therefore, learning about inflammation is an essential aspect of figuring out how to keep your mouth healthy. Once you understand it plays a role, many oral health conditions suddenly make sense. The best way to get a better smile is to brush your teeth and eat well.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I think this is an extremely important topic, Christy! Our oral care routine (or the lack thereof) really can affect our health in ways we never imagined possible. Some cases of heart disease, or infections of the heart tissue, are caused by infections of the mouth. We found out the hard ways years ago when then was a problem my father was having. He also had heart disease.

    Going to the dentist was something I tried to do almost religiously every 6 months. My mouth felt better, and honestly, I believe just like you article says, I felt better physically. Seeing the link to inflammation in the body really makes me wonder if that’s why.

    Sadly, once my local dentist retired, I haven’t been back. The others here are either booked solid, or not worth going to. Excellent dentists and dental hygienists are hard to find here. Not to mention, in the USA, what so many of them are charging! We’re talking thousands of dollars. (sigh)

    Thanks for the reminder to get back to taking better care of my chompers and gums. I needed the kick in the rump today. ;) I’ll make an appointment as soon as possible!

    Sending my love to you, dear friend. Thanks for all you do to spread awareness of the ways we can improve our health & our lives. You’re awesome! ♥

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