Growing up my entire life with a mom who is also a hardcore dental hygienist has engrained healthy dental habits since I think I could formulate memories in my brain. I recall the very thorough tooth brushing routine from a young age to even getting caught at age 8 with a pack of non-sugarless gum stashed under my bed (and the fear of God I had once I knew I could never outsmart my mom with sneaking sugary snacks and candies in our home). While this may have cramped my sweet-tooth sugar addiction that I inherited from my dad, I am thankful that I was raised with such stringent and careful dental care, as I can still boast being cavity-free at age 33.
As parents, we strive to do everything right for our kids – feed them healthy, bathe them, keep them safe, raise them with morals and love, etc. Something else to add to the list (regardless of our own state of dental affairs) is aiming to keep our kids’ teeth and mouths as healthy as possible, too, for the link to dental health and overall health is astonishing. My mom would tell me how if we let dangerous bacteria grow in our mouths, it can actually lead to heart problems and rampant infections throughout the body… and I finally really made the whole connection once I went back to school to study holistic health and nutrition. It is shocking to know how many body systems are connected to and affected by our dental health. For new parents out there, ensuring good dental health practices starts before babies even get teeth; for those of us with young kids, now is the time to start making sure we pay even closer attention to the many ways we can support optimal dental health; and as adults, it’s time we take a look at our own habits to make sure we are taking care of ourselves and setting a good example for our little ones (even if you just hate going to the dentist).
Think about it – many things happen in the mouth: the start of digestion, the introduction of many pathogens, speech, some breathing…. So it’s important to keep this area of the body clean and healthy so it can optimally function. Did you know that dental disease is one of the leading causes of childhood health ailments? According to the Pennsylvania Dental Association:
“ Tooth decay affects more than one quarter of children ages two to five, half of those ages 12 to 15 and countless adults in the United States. In fact, tooth decay is the most common chronic disease in children; five times more common than asthma and seven times more common than hay fever. The good news is that tooth decay is preventable. “
Lots of bacteria naturally exist in our mouths – this is how digestion begins. Enzymes and bacteria help to start break down food chemically. However, if the wrong foods are eaten, like sugar or refined carbohydrate foods that break down into sugar, the sugar acts as a feeding frenzy for bacteria ON the teeth, which eventually leads to inflammation and the decay or breakdown of healthy enamel, which protects the teeth and keeps them strong. Additionally, this bacteria builds up over time, causing bad breath and leads to infection, which then takes away important infection-fighting cells from other parts of the body where they are needed to combat a problem area that is easily avoidable. As the immune system kicks into high gear to attack the bacteria and infection in the mouth, this leads to prolonged inflammation, which as I’ve stated before, is never healthy for the body. Over time, this inflammation and the chemicals it releases eat away at the gums and bone structure that hold teeth in place, which eventually results in moderate to severe gum disease, known as gingivitis (moderate) and periodontitis (severe). While this is more commonly known as an adult dental issue, it is becoming more and more common in children, most likely due to the increase in sugary foods and drinks (and overall lack of a healthy diet). As parents, we need to be extra concerned about this, as this chronic inflammation in the mouth linked to poor dental health can also cause problems in the rest of the body such as:
THE DIABETES CONNECTION: According to Pamela McClain, DDS, President of the American Academy of Periodontology, the working relationship between diabetes and periodontitis may be the strongest of all the connections between the mouth and body. Inflammation that starts in the mouth seems to weaken the body’s ability to control blood sugar. People with diabetes have trouble processing sugar because of a lack of insulin, the hormone that converts sugar into energy. “Periodontal disease further complicates diabetes because the inflammation impairs the body’s ability to utilize insulin,” Dr. McClain says. To further complicate matters, diabetes and periodontitis have a two-way relationship. High blood sugar provides ideal conditions for infection to grow, including gum infections. Fortunately you can use the gum disease-diabetes relationship to your favor: managing one can help bring the other under control.
THE HEART-HEALTH CONNECTION: Dr. Sally Cram, DDS notes that while the reasons are not fully understood, it’s clear that gum disease and heart disease often go hand in hand. Up to 91% of patients with heart disease have periodontitis, compared to 66% of people with no heart disease. The two conditions have several risk factors in common, such as smoking (in teens and adults), unhealthy diet, and excess weight. This is important to get a grasp on from an early age, as any form of heart disease prevention is key. “The theory is that inflammation in the mouth causes inflammation in the blood vessels,” says Dr. Cram. This can increase the risk for heart attack in a number of ways: inflamed blood vessels allow less blood to travel between the heart and the rest of the body, raising blood pressure. “There’s also a greater risk that fatty plaque will break off the wall of a blood vessel and travel to the heart or the brain, causing a heart attack or stroke,” Cram explains.
OVERALL HEALTH: It’s a known fact that infections stemming in the mouth (either due to decay or gum disease) can quickly spread to other areas of the body. In children, this can deteriorate their health even faster, as their bodies are more susceptible to illness and their organs and bodies are still developing. Some scientific research has even noted that poor dental health can affect brain function, behavior/mood, and overall development. If the body is too busy trying to constantly fight off a baseline infection or bacterial invasion, it does not have enough resources to focus on what it needs to. Why subject our children to that?
A GREAT SUMMARY BY KIDSORALHEALTH.COM: Dental disease is the most common chronic disease of early childhood. Cavities and decay in baby teeth can also spread to permanent teeth, causing painful and costly damage. But you can prevent this! Regular preventive care and a healthy diet can help prevent decay.
Healthy baby teeth:
Dental decay in baby teeth affects your child’s overall health:
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Earliest prevention is key. Starting before babies get their teeth is best, but starting at any stage is better than not doing anything at all.
Here’s to bright, healthy smiles for EVERYONE in your family. I can personally attest that learning healthy oral hygiene habits from an early age helped me obtain optimal dental health, which impacts every other system in your body. Besides, who wants to sit in the dentist chair having fillings? Help your child onto this healthy dental path as soon as possible.
Megan Monday articles are written by Megan Kalocinski, a Certified Holistic Health and Nutrition Coach and Owner/Founder of Empower Health & Nutrition Coaching of Exponential Health and Wellness, LLC: http://www.exponentialhealthandwellness.us