Too often, we associate the dentist as a place to go after something has already gone wrong with your teeth.
But your dentist can be one of your most powerful allies in preventing illness not only in your mouth, but throughout your body.
Your dentist is responsible not just for your teeth, but also how your jaw, face, and airway all develop. These things affect your ability to breathe without interruptions throughout the night, and thus, impact the quality of your sleep.
There’s so much more than just a pretty smile that you can get from your dentist.
Here are five core elements to oral health that perhaps your dentist isn’t bringing up at your visits. Bring these topics up yourself at your next check-up!
- If you grind your teeth, your dentist should screen you for obstructive sleep apnea and refer you to a sleep specialist MD. Studies using human brain scans show that grinding is how our body responds when we are struggling to breathe during sleep. Grinding requires the teeth to touch, thereby activating the muscles and bringing the jaw and tongue forward to reopen the narrow space at the back of your throat, getting you to breathe again. Other muscles, including the neck and shoulders, work to reopen the airway. Whether you remember it or not, every time this happens, your body’s sleep is interrupted. Treating sleep apnea early on on can prevent premature aging, heart and circulatory system damage, anxiety, depression, decreased IQ, and unnecessary wear and tear on the immune system. Dentists treat sleep apnea, as part of a team with physicians and other sleep specialists.
- All those antibacterial toothpastes and mouthwashes are hurting us. From all the advertising out there, you would think that the goal with oral health is to kill all the bacteria in your mouth. This idea is incredibly harmful to not just our oral health, but the health of the rest of our bodies as well. Antibacterial products wipe out both the good and bad bacteria in our mouths, hurting our microbiome and gut bacteria, and potentially causing the regrowth of the wrong type of bacteria in our mouths.
- Before doing cosmetic work, you need a foundation of healthy teeth. I can be pretty unpopular sometimes telling patients we can’t whiten their teeth until we work to stop their gum disease. Have you ever heard the phrase, “we want to be thin before we’re fit”? Looking good is a byproduct of good health, not the other way around. Your dentist should not be doing cosmetic work for you unless you have a foundation of strong oral health first, including no gum disease, straight teeth, and good sleep ability, or ability to breathe without interruptions at night.
- Teeth can sometimes heal themselves. You always hear people talking about brushing and flossing when it comes to cavity prevention. But that’s only part of how to prevent cavities. The key to preventing cavities is to make sure that your teeth are regaining minerals at a faster rate than they are losing minerals. This losing and gaining of minerals is called remineralization and demineralization. You can promote remineralization with a diet that is low in processed foods and high in alkaline water, tea and vegetables. Dark chocolate with 80% cacao content or higher is just as powerful as fluoride in remineralizing teeth, according to several studies. Ask your dentist to help you not just with developing a strong oral hygiene, but also diet and natural remineralization, which will help keep you cavity-free.
- The health of the mouth affects the health of the rest of the body. When I was in dental school, teeth were discussed in isolation from the rest of the body. The truth is that oral health is strongly connected to our well-being. Gum disease has been shown in several studies to be linked to heart disease, dementia, and pregnancy complications. Your dentist should be screening you for oral cancer and talking to you about prevention. Your dentist can also examine your teeth, mouth, face, and back of the throat to see if you might have interrupted sleep breathing. Sleep ability is something we need to be concerned about just as much as cholesterol or high blood pressure. It trumps diet and exercise when we’re trying to get healthier; that’s how fundamental uninterrupted, deep sleep is. If you have diabetes, heart or kidney disease, or another chronic inflammatory condition, your dentist can help your doctor get a clearer picture of what’s contributing to your CRP levels by providing information about the status of your oral health, since gum disease can be a huge source of inflammation.
In your quest for health and well-being, don’t leave out oral health. It’s a fundamental piece of the equation as we work to reduce our susceptibility to illness and disease and to live fuller, richer, longer lives.
Now, I leave you with a challenge: At your next dentist appointment, bring up just one of these topics with your dentist. Just pick one so that you don’t get overwhelmed with a long list of things. Ideally, this one thing will open the door to a great conversation that will help you get the most out of your dental visits.
Mark Burhenne DDS