Why you should care
Because what’s in your mouth doesn’t stay in your mouth.
When you’re sweating it out on the treadmill or sidewalk, you’re probably thinking about how all that exercise is going to make you look fitter or help your heart run a bit better. But what if there was another rather unusual benefit? What if going to the gym was also good for your gums?
This statement comes from a study published this past May in the journal Oral Diseases:
Obese people are six times more likely than ideal-weight folks to develop severe gum diseases.
In the study of 160 people in Thailand, researchers found an increased likelihood of oral diseases, especially gum disease, in those who were overweight or obese, which they defined as having a body mass index greater than or equal to 23 and 25, respectively. The study also found increased leukocyte counts, which usually happens when the body is fighting an infection, in obese and overweight participants as compared to ideal-weight participants.
We’re only just getting to know about the connection between oral health and other diseases.
The connection? One expert blames our fat cells. They “produce many chemical signals and hormones, and many of these substances lead to inflammation throughout the body,” says Dr. Terrence Griffin, president of the American Association of Periodontology. The inflammation, in turn, leads to decreased immunity, making us more susceptible to periodontal diseases, he adds. Fat or any foreign material will trigger or activate inflammatory cells — such as macrophages or neutrophils — and this results in the production of cytokines that will destroy soft and hard tissues, explains Dr. Salomon Amar, a professor of molecular and cell biology at Boston University.
When you’re brushing your teeth, you’re doing much more than just getting rid of bad breath or removing that piece of spinach that your dinner date didn’t mention. In 2006, Dr. Amar did a study on how periodontal health relates to complications during pregnancy, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and osteoporosis. The link to cardiovascular diseases, in particular, is emerging as a substantial threat, he says. Meanwhile, the association with diabetes has been found to work both ways, meaning if you have severe periodontal disease, you should probably get checked for diabetes.
We’re only just getting to know about the connection between oral health and other diseases, says Dr. Griffin. The first link between periodontitis and obesity surfaced in 1977, when researchers found changes in the gum tissue of obese rats. “When I was doing my residency, I was told that periodontal disease is a localized infection that more or less stays in the mouth,” he says. “That turned out to be not true.”
Conclusion? Our gums are way more important than we think, says Dr. Griffin. And their state is something that medical care teams should include in their screening processes and management of the disease. “Clinicians should be aware of the role played by obesity in the development of new cases of periodontitis, and individuals who are overweight or obese should pay extra attention to their oral health,” Dr. Amélie Keller and Dr. Jeanett Friis Rohde, independent researchers who’ve studied the link between obesity and oral health, said in an email to OZY.
If the fear of diabetes and heart disease doesn’t get you to look after your gums, what will?