From an early age we are taught that good oral hygiene is important to prevent tooth decay and gum disease. But what few people know is that regular dental check-ups could reveal much more than just problems relating to teeth, explains Maretha Smit, CEO of the South African Dental Association. The answer to your health and ageing concerns may very well be in your mouth
Smit says the popular trend these days is to eschew visits to the dentist in favour of home herbal remedies to keep teeth clean and white, or to treat infection or toothache.
“Naturalists punt oil of cloves to treat a toothache or teething. Calendula and echinacea are advocated to soothe sore gums and reduce inflammation. Parsley, mint and liquorice are natural breath-fresheners. Baking soda-and-salt paste has replaced commercial toothpaste, and oil-pulling (the practice of swishing coconut or sesame oil through your teeth for 15 to 20 minutes daily) is hailed as an ancient cure-all.”
But while there is no doubt that herbal remedies can help to relieve pain, herbal oral care is not a replacement for the skills of the dentist, she cautions.
“Users may also have adverse reactions to certain herbs or compounds. These herbal remedies typically mask healing, so using them without proper consultation is never advised; therefore we recommend that people visit their dentist at the first sign of pain or bleeding.”
Dentists see inflamed or bleeding gums, gingivitis, bad breath, toothache or tooth decay daily.
“And while all of these maladies could be ascribed to poor diet and oral hygiene, an astute dentist will know that it could also be a sign of diabetes.”
Anatomically, the oral cavity – which includes the teeth, jaws, lips, cheeks, hard and soft palates, tongue and glottis – has a role in many critical physiological processes, such as digestion, respiration and speech, says Smit.
“The World Health Organisation would like to see the population having good oral health. This would translate into patients being free of chronic mouth and facial pain, oral and throat cancer, oral sores, periodontal (gum) disease, tooth decay and tooth loss, and other diseases and disorders that affect the mouth and oral cavity that are preventable.”
Smit explains that when you visit the dentist, they are not only looking for cavities or gum disease, but also at the soft tissue of the mouth.
“Depending on its condition, the hard and soft tissue can often be a visual alert to conditions including undiagnosed cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, anaemia, and gastrointestinal diseases such as Crohn’s disease.”
In many instances, oral involvement precedes the appearance of other symptoms or lesions at other locations – and it may be your dentist who diagnoses it first. “For example, if the lining of the patient’s mouth is very pale (a light shade of pink) or the tongue has lost its typical bumpy texture, the dentist might suspect anaemia, a condition in which the body doesn’t have enough red blood cells circulating,” says Smit.
“Although not every white or red lesion is oral cancer, white and red lesions may show up in the mouth, usually on the side of the tongue or the back of the tongue, the floor of the mouth and the soft palate – signs which regular dental visits could diagnose in the early stages. Patients suffering from the inflammatory bowel disease Crohn’s disease often develop swollen lips and ulcers in their mouth before the abdominal symptoms such as cramps and diarrhoea appear.”
Regular dental visits are recommended to help to identify problems before they become a serious health issue.
Tooth Questions Answered
Luanne Cloete, oral hygienist with a bachelor’s degree in Oral Health, offers the following tips and advice for healthy teeth
What your teeth say about your health:
Teeth can tell us a lot about your diet, which influences overall health. We can also often see when people have bulimia, acid reflux, drug-abuse problems, excessive fizzy cold-drink habits – the list goes on. The state of the tongue, gums and soft tissue of the mouth can often reveal underlying disease or health problems. Anything abnormal in the mouth, like sores or lumps, that don’t heal in two weeks should be checked by a dentist, as these can have more serious health implications. Unchecked tooth decay and gum disease can lead to abscesses and even bacteria entering the bloodstream, which can have a negative impact on the heart and other organs. In essence, oral disease can have a big impact on the overall health of the body.
The worst thing you can do for your teeth:
There are a few bad habits, but right at the top is smoking. It increases your risk of gum disease, delays wound healing in the mouth, and puts you at risk of oral cancer. For people with dental implants, it puts you at a greater risk of implant failure. It’s also a big tooth-stainer – there are absolutely no dental advantages of smoking.
The best thing you can do for your teeth:
We all have plaque (the fluffy white substance that grows on our teeth). It contains millions of bacteria. These bacteria release acid that can cause tooth decay, and toxins that play a role in gum disease. The longer the plaque sits on your teeth, the thicker it becomes and the more bacteria multiply and do damage. If you floss once a day and brush twice daily, and you do a proper job, you keep plaque levels low and minimise your risk of tooth decay, pain and dental disease. It’s in your power to avoid pain and suffering, and it’s never too late to start.
Brushing alone does not remove bacteria and food particles between the teeth, and they lurk there and cause problems over time. Would you wash just one armpit in the shower? Then why would you be happy cleaning some tooth surfaces but leaving out all of the spaces between your teeth. Tip: healthy gums don’t bleed. If you floss and they bleed, don’t panic – keep flossing, as that is the way to help gums to heal.
Mouthwash can be a useful tool when added to your flossing and brushing regime. Most mouthwashes have antiseptic ingredients that kill plaque bacteria, causing the plaque to grow a little more slowly, and they have a bit of fluoride that hardens and protects teeth. However, mouthwash is not a replacement for flossing. Mouthwash does not remove food stuck between teeth and does not remove sticky plaque.
Improving the discolouration of teeth:
Consult your dentist or oral hygienist to find out what is causing the discolouration, and the most effective way to deal with it. Avoid wasting money by using all sorts of untested and potentially ineffective and/or unsafe products on the teeth.
Home whitening products, do they work?
There are normally two types of tooth-whitening needs:
- The person has superficial stains stuck to the teeth as a result of coffee, tea, red wine, smoking, etc. If the stains are quite obvious, they won’t just go away. A clean at the oral hygienist should remove most of the staining, and then, as homecare, people often opt to use whitening toothpastes or rinses.Most whitening toothpastes are a bit more “gritty” and scour the stains, reducing their appearance or rate of build-up. Some whitening toothpastes and rinses have a chemical action that prevents stains from adhering to tooth structure, such as Oral B toothpaste and Listerine Advanced White. Whitening toothpastes and rinses help a bit, to varying degrees.
- The next group of people want to whiten their actual tooth structure. This is where tooth-whitening comes in. Professional tooth-whitening is usually quite effective. Beware of googling homemade whitening recipes. They often advise people to soak teeth in acids such as lemon juice, or scrub with bicarb, or use unstable peroxide. Many of these ingredients have the potential to do damage when used regularly. The only tooth-bleaching product I would allow on my teeth is something straight from the dentist’s/oral hygienist’s office. Professional bleach used in my office is a well-known, well-tested product with a safe pH, and tooth minerals such as fluoride added to protect the teeth and keep them safe.
Are your Teeth Giving you Back Pain?
Dr Steven Lin, dentist and advocate of preventive health through nutrition and lifestyle advice, is a Board-accredited dentist trained at the University of Sydney (www.drstevenlin.com). He has a background in biomedical science, nutrition and fitness, and aims to help people to understand the relationship between their mouth, how to eat healthily, and their lives. He shares the following:
A trip to the orthodontist to assess crooked teeth has become a standard procedure for growing children. And while for those who can afford it, modern braces provide an aesthetic solution for misaligned teeth, often the serious underlying health issues that are associated with malformed skeletal jaw growth are poorly understood.
An understanding of the facial development deficiencies that result in crooked teeth, the link to the modern industrialised diet, and the degenerative health consequences that result, show that preventing malocclusion (teeth misalignment) is something we need to consider seriously.
Rising Rate of Crooked Teeth
Dental malocclusion affects nearly two-thirds of the population of the United States. Despite this, there has been relatively little discussion of what causes crooked dental arches, despite compelling evidence suggesting changes in diet play a major role.
Teeth crowding is caused by factors that lead to insufficient space in the mouth, with malocclusions having been labelled as “diseases of Westernisation”. Studies have suggested dental malocclusion is related to the industrialisation of modern dietary habits. They examined the indigenous Australian Yuendumu tribe, which, in previous generations, was found to have a high rate of healthy dental arch formation. Once the introduction of the cooked, processed diet occurred, the newer generation was seen to develop malocclusion at much higher rates.
Some researchers have postulated that the increased malocclusion from Westernisation comes from increased mixing of genetic information as different populations interact. However, animal studies have found that, when fed a soft, industrialised diet, jaw development in pigs was found to be affected, compared to those fed on traditional staples.
Crooked Teeth, the Skull and Poor Posture
Teeth have a dual function: they are not just for chewing, but also support the skull during occlusion. Our jaw is designed to give spinal stability though the swallowing process. The positioning of the skull on the jaw is also dictated by the relationship of the teeth, which can cause curvature of the spine. If the lower jaw is underdeveloped and too far back, or where the teeth are misaligned or collapsed, the support of the skull will tilt, resulting in abnormal body posture.
Poor airway opening will often lead to forward head positioning, in order to allow the person to breathe with the least effort. When airways are blocked, the body tilts the head back. Humans cannot function for long in this position, as their eyes must be parallel with the horizon, so the body then automatically leans the head forward.
Posture and Lifelong Health Problems
Today we see many cases where people have this forward head posture – necks that are holding the head in a forward position. The adult cranium weighs between 5kg and 8kg, and the strain in the neck or cervical region to support this abnormal head posture can cause symptoms ranging from muscle fatigue and fibromyalgia to snoring, sleep apnoea, sinusitis and frequent ear infections. Severely misaligned, irregular and maloccluding teeth can cause difficulties with oral function, including swallowing, chewing and speech-related problems. Other problems are less aesthetic facial appearance and increased risk for oral disease, such as trauma, tooth decay and periodontal disease.
Although some minor malocclusions might just be an aesthetic concern, this may have a strong psychosocial effect on the individual, including altered self-esteem, social and interaction responses, and increased awareness of people’s perceptions of them.
Jaw shift may cause a positional head adaptation, which will affect sight and vision, particularly the peripheral field of view, which affects motor coordination and the maintenance of balance.
Are Orthodontic Braces Too Late?
Dental malocclusion is a far more serious developmental problem than popular consensus tells us. Orthodontic work may assist in correcting some of the problems associated with poor jaw development; however, underlying dietary and nutritional issues are likely to be the core problem that needs to be addressed in order to prevent the rising occurrence of health problems associated with crooked teeth.