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When you smile for the camera, you want your pearly whites to show. But oral health involves a lot more than just great teeth and can point toward other health conditions lurking in the body. The Canadian Dental Association defines oral health as, "a state of the oral and related tissues and structures that contribute positively to physical, mental and social well-being and to the enjoyment of life's possibilities, by allowing the individual to speak, eat and socialize unhindered by pain, discomfort or embarrassment." Wow, now that's a mouth full. But if you think about it, your daily life is absolutely hindered by a toothache, a missing tooth, or gum disease. And most of us don't go to the dentist until it's too late; a tooth has to be extracted, a filling has come out and needs replacing or you have to face the dreaded root canal. We all know that tobacco products cause yellowing of the teeth and that's why we brush and floss twice a day, but did you know that it is also a major cause of tooth loss in adults? Problems with your teeth can also hinder the digestive process as your teeth are considered an accessory digestive organ. After all, it's where digestion begins; in the mouth. Research is now showing us that there may be a link between oral disease and diabetes, premature low birth rate babies, heart disease and stroke. So open wide, because we're about to take a look inside your mouth and into exactly what oral care encompasses.
A Look at the Obvious – Your Teeth
There are 32 permanent teeth in an adult's mouth by the age of 25. By this point, an adult has gone through a set of 20 baby teeth (normally in place by the age of 2). Teeth come and go up until the age of 12. The ones that usually cause the problems are the third molars, or wisdom teeth. Sometimes these remain impacted (fail to erupt) which requires extraction, and sometimes they fail to show up altogether.
Incisors – chisel-shaped teeth, adapted for cutting.
Canines – for tearing or piercing.
Premolars (bicuspids) and molars - best suited for grinding.
Your teeth's worst enemies are plaque and tartar, both of which are totally preventable if you brush and floss twice a day. Plaque is a sticky, colourless film made up of saliva, food particles and bacteria that constantly builds up, hides inside tiny holes or pits in molars, and thickens and hardens on the teeth. The bacteria in plaque can also change food starches into acids which will erode your enamel. If it is not removed by daily brushing and flossing, this plaque can harden into tartar and may contribute to infections in the gums.
A cavity is a hole in a tooth that is caused when plaque attacks the tooth's enamel and causes decay. When tooth decay enters the hard enamel, it has entry to the main body of the tooth. Small cavities may not even be apparent at first, however as they grow and penetrate the tooth, they can affect the tiny nerve fibers, resulting in a painful abscess or infection and may even require a painful procedure known as a root canal (the removal of the pulp chamber of the tooth and filling it with a suitable filling material. This is necessary when the decay has reached the nerve of the tooth or infection has set in.)
Enamel is the thin outer covering of the tooth. Enamel is the hardest substance in the body and is fairly brittle because it is heavily mineralized with calcium salts. This tough shell covers the crown, the part of the tooth that's visible. Enamel is translucent, you can see right through it. It's the main body of the tooth, or the dentin, that is responsible for your tooth color.
Enamel helps protect your teeth from daily use and insulates them from potentially painful temperatures and chemicals. Even though it's tough, enamel can chip and crack, (can you hear your mother's voice in your head?!), and acid in the food you eat (sodas, fruit, acid reflux, analgesics) will eventually wear it away. The natural action of chewing your food, clenching and grinding your teeth, or using a harsh toothpaste and brush will also eventually wear away at your enamel.
The bad news is, once a tooth chips or breaks, the damage is done forever. Because enamel has no living cells, the body cannot repair chipped or cracked enamel. Signs of enamel erosion include mild to painful sensitivity, discoloration, cracks, chips, and cupping; when indentations appear on the surface of the teeth.
Staining – Sometimes coffee, tea, cola, red wine, fruit juices, and cigarettes stain the enamel on your teeth. Regular visits to your dentist for routine cleaning and polishing can help remove most surface stains and make sure your teeth stay healthy.
The soft tissue surrounding your teeth is your gums, or gingiva. Your gums provide a seal around your teeth and are tightly bound to the underlying bone mainly to prevent them from flopping around when you eat. Healthy gums are coral pink in color, firm to the touch, have a smooth, orange-peel-like texture, and are scalloped securely around each tooth. Changes in color, along with swelling, and an increased tendency to bleed could indicate gingivitis, or gum disease has set in. Your mouth is a warm, wet and cozy place for all sorts of unwelcome microorganisms to hide and breed and they'll stay and grow and cause all kinds of problems for you if you don't evict them from your mouth by brushing and flossing every day.
Halitosis is the technical term for bad breath. In most cases, it originates in the mouth but can, however, lurk for hours after eating things like garlic, onions, fish and cheese. Morning breath occurs because the mouth is less exposed to oxygen causing odor to develop and worsen over night. Halitosis is easily stemmed by brushing your teeth and, if particularly offensive, you can add the step of using a mouthwash as well.
Useful for sticking out at someone when you're mad, your tongue also allows you to speak properly and helps you to mush and move your food about when you eat. Taking care of your tongue is as important as brushing your teeth because it too can harbor detrimental bacteria, decaying food particles, fungi and dead cells from your mouth. Brushing your tongue with your toothbrush removes debris and prevents bad breath. And while you're at it, give the insides of your cheeks a gentle going-over with your toothbrush to make sure nothing is clinging on that might allow decay to set in later.
The tongue can be an important indicator that other diseases may be present. For instance, white spots or patches, or coating of the tongue can be a symptom of things like oral candidiasis, dehydration, and/or jaundice. Traditional Chinese Medicine has always placed a high degree of trust and accuracy on an examination of the tongue to determine if other things are going on in the body.
Diseases Detectable Through Oral Clues
There is now research that shows the connection between poor oral health and systemic disease such as diabetes in people of all ages and respiratory diseases particularly among elderly people. Also there is new research now pointing to possible connections between oral health and other systemic conditions such as heart disease, stroke and premature, low birth weight babies.
Left untreated, gum disease can lead to the loss of teeth and an increased risk of more serious diseases, such as respiratory disease. The bacteria in plaque can travel from the mouth to the lungs, causing infection or aggravating existing lung conditions. It's also possible that your digestive abilities may suffer from a lack of oral care because digestion begins in the mouth with your saliva, the chewing action of your teeth and the grinding action of your tongue.
There is also a link between diabetes and gum disease. People with diabetes are more susceptible to gum disease and it can put them at greater risk of diabetic complications.
Studies are also examining whether pregnant women with poor oral health may be at a higher risk of delivering pre-term, low birth weight (PLBW) babies than women with good oral health. Babies who are pre-term or low birth weight have a higher risk of developmental complications, asthma, ear infections, birth abnormalities, behavioural difficulties and are at a higher risk of infant death. Even though this research is ongoing, it is still important for pregnant women to take care of their gums and teeth.
Developing an Oral Health Plan
So what are the most important things you can do to maintain good oral health, to reduce your risk of developing periodontal disease, and to reduce your risk of developing many of the other diseases?
Oral probiotics are friendly bacteria that live in a healthy mouth and prevent the overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria to act as a first line of defense against infections that enter the body through the mouth. Probiotic gum controls and destroys bacteria that cause bad breath, sore throats, ear infections, sinus problems and upper respiratory infection.
Essentials of Human Anatomy & Physiology, Seventh Edition, Elaine N. Marieb
Carol Roy is a Natural Health Practitioner who received her diploma from the Alternative Medicine College of Canada in Montreal, Quebec. With 12 years experience in her area of expertise, natural health and wellness, Carol has also trained to become a fully qualified Reiki Master, Quantum Touch Practitioner, and Reflexologist.
are recommendations only and not a substitute for any medical advice or a
replacement for any prescriptions. Seek medical advice for any health concerns.
Consult your health care provider before using any recommendations herein.