Your oral health has an impact on your health overall, according to a new approach known as holistic dentistry. We asked an expert to explain the link.
If you’re experiencing a problem with your teeth, you might assume the issue is independent from what’s going on in the rest of your body – but that might not necessarily be true.
Oral health is intrinsically linked to your overall health and quality of life. For example, what’s going on in your mouth influences the flow of healthy nutrients to your body and also affects your wellbeing through everyday actions like kissing, smelling, chewing and conveying emotions. In addition, bacteria from the mouth can cause infection in other parts of the body when the immune system has been compromised.
At the more serious end of the scale, there’s a link between poor oral health and chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and respiratory issues.
Exploring the link
“A growing awareness of the link between oral health and general health has given rise to a more all-encompassing approach to teeth care,” says dentist Dr Lewis Ehrlich from Sydney Holistic Dental Centre.
“Holistic dentistry is about recognising that the body is all connected, and included in that connection is the mouth,” he says. “Traditionally, dentistry has been seen in isolation from the rest of the body, and the more research that comes out continues to show that the mouth affects systemic health in a major way. So having a healthy mouth means you’ll have a better chance of being a healthier human.”
Gum disease is one way to illustrate the connection between oral health and overall health. Periodontal disease – the advanced stage of gum disease – can make it harder for people with diabetes to manage their blood sugar levels. Conversely, diabetes itself can be a factor in tissue damage associated with periodontal disease.
“With diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, the common denominator is chronic inflammation,” Ehrlich says. “And one of the most common types of chronic inflammation in the body is in gum disease.
“What happens is really aggressive inflammatory-causing bacteria that live underneath the gum tissue can travel through your blood supply and have been shown to cause some havoc elsewhere in the body.”
Another factor in the link between oral health and overall health is nutrition. Poor oral health issues such as difficulties with chewing and tooth loss reduce the likelihood of eating a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, protein, vitamins and fibre, which may, in turn, increase the risk of chronic disease.
Oral Health 101
Taking a holistic approach to oral health means looking beyond your teeth and focusing on all bodily functions that involve the mouth, such as breathing. Unhealthy breathing patterns can impact the way you sleep and work.
“We see a lot of people experiencing sleep-disordered breathing and sleep apnoea,” says Ehrlich, adding that crowded teeth is one reason people struggle to breathe in a healthy way. “We look at whether someone wakes up refreshed, whether they snore, whether they’re breathing well at night time, whether their partner reports any cessation of breathing, and that sort of thing. We might refer people to a sleep physician, in some cases.”
Poor oral health can also cause you pain, which is why holistic dentistry places a focus on investigating headaches, neck aches and jaw pain.
“Often people who wake up with headaches assume it’s because they haven’t drunk enough water, which is part of the picture, but often it’s due to clenching and grinding,” says Ehrlich.
What does a holistic dentist do?
As well as investigating the way you sleep and breathe, a holistic dentist might also delve into your medical history and your daily diet. This may include giving you advice on eliminating foods that are detrimental to your teeth, such as starchy and sugary foods, as well as dietary patterns that can improve your oral health.
“Rather than just saying, ‘don’t eat sugar’, we try and educate our patients on the importance of consuming foods containing fat-soluble vitamins that are very important for strengthening your bones and teeth,” says Ehrlich. “We also do an oral cancer screen, checking the tissues inside the mouth for cancer.”
Another aspect that makes holistic dentistry different is the materials used in treatment.
“The dental industry puts more foreign material into the body than any almost any other profession, so we like to make sure that materials we use are as biocompatible as they can be,” Ehrlich says. Biocompatibility means the material won’t cause adverse effects in the body. “We’re trying to minimise any sort of bodily reaction or inflammatory reaction that people can get from the materials that we implant.”