If the eyes are the window to your soul, the mouth is the window to your health. You may think that what happens to your mouth stays in your mouth, but in fact, problems in your mouth can affect the rest of your body. Several systemic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, may first be diagnosed because of mouth lesions or noticeably deteriorating oral health. Moreover, your oral health
can amplify the severity of several health conditions, such as pneumonia.
Part of the problem is that our teeth tend to be the main attraction when it comes to oral health. Dentists tell us to brush our teeth, but no one says brush your gums. Gum health is just as important and plays a significant role in the overall health of your body. “People are more teeth centric: they focus on their front teeth, what they see, and the rest is happenstance,” says Ana Andrick, a Longmont, Colorado-based registered dental hygienist. “They tend to neglect their gums.”
Why gum health is important
Teeth require healthy gums to support them. Gums serve as a protective seal around the teeth, shielding the more sensitive tissues underneath. Yet where the gum line meets the teeth is where food tends to accumulate. If bacteria are allowed to sit on gums and teeth, small pockets begin to form over time, creating even more places for plaque to hide. The gradual erosion of gum tissues exposes the teeth, increasing the likelihood of cavities.
Like other areas of the body, your mouth teems with bacteria—mostly harmless. “You have over 400 types of bacteria in your mouth and when it’s out of balance can affect your overall health,” says Andrick. “Because you swallow the bacteria, it goes into your bloodstream and into your body. If you have a chronic infection in your mouth affects everything else.”
Normally the body's natural defenses and dedicated oral health care, such as daily brushing and flossing, keep bacteria under control. However, without proper oral hygiene, bacteria can reach levels that might lead to bigger issues, such as tooth decay, gum disease and gingivitis.
Gum tissue generally responds to bacterial plaque with inflammation which can be reversed with frequent cleanings and improved habits. Other factors that can lead to advanced gum diseas
e include age, stress, genetics, smoking or tobacco use, medications, obesity, poor nutrition or grinding and clenching your teeth, especially at night while you sleep.
In addition, certain medications—such as decongestants, antihistamines, painkillers, diuretics and antidepressants—reduce saliva flow, making you more susceptible to oral infections. Saliva is your most powerful defense against decay: It washes away food and neutralizes bacterial acids helping to protect you from invasive microbes.
Signs of healthy gums
If you are curious about the state of your gums, here’s how to recognize the specific characteristics of healthy gum tissue. Gum tissue color varies, but it is typically coral pink or a darker hue depending on your ethnicity. Healthy gum tissue has a firm texture and feels snug around your teeth. The shape of gum tissue follows a curved line around the tooth.
Red flags to look for:
There are several warning signs and symptoms that you may notice that can indicate the onset of gum disease.
- Red, swollen or tender gums
- Gums that have pulled away from your teeth
- Permanent teeth that are loose or separating
- Pockets of pus
- Noticeable changes in the fit of your dentures
- Bad breath
How to improve gum health
Keeping harmful bacteria out of your mouth can make you less susceptible to infections and possibly keep you healthier overall. Here are seven ways to take charge of your gum health.
1. Brush your teeth for two minutes at least twice a day with a soft-bristled brush using fluoride toothpaste
2. Flossing is just as critical to your oral health as brushing. Floss at least once a day to remove plaque and food debris. Insert the dental floss
between your teeth, curving in a "C" shape around each tooth, moving it against the tooth and below the gum line in an up-and-down motion. Use a new section of floss between each tooth so you don't put germs back into your mouth.
3. Use mouthwash
to remove any food particles left after brushing and flossing. An antibacterial mouthwash can help reduce the amount of bacteria in your mouth and lower your chances of gingivitis.
4. The most harmful bacteria feeds on sugar. Eat a healthy diet and limit food with added sugars
5. Replace your toothbrush every three months or sooner if bristles are splayed or worn.
6. Make regular dental checkups at least twice a year, but don't wait until you feel pain. By the time you feel irritation, your gums will already be in the throes of an infection or be in an advanced stage of gum disease.
7. Avoid tobacco use.
Since smoking weakens your immune system, making it harder to fight off a gum infection.