There’s a reason why we are wired to find a pretty smile attractive: There are hidden—and scientifically proven—connections between oral health and overall well-being. These solutions can give both a boost.
When Dale Carnegie published his seminal book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, among his six simple tips for becoming more likable was to smile. Since then, sociologists and psychologists have been busy studying the power of the smile, cataloging how it can make us appear prettier or more competent at work. But aside from upping our social or professional standing, there’s another, often-overlooked, reason to care about our teeth and gums: our overall health.
Science shows that oral health can be a good indicator of general health.—Dr. Odiatu
“Everyday people often see a nice smile as something that makes a nice selfie,” says Toronto cosmetic dentist Uche Odiatu, DMD. “But, science shows that oral health can be a good indicator of general health. A mouth in poor condition has been linked to everything from cardiovascular disease to Alzheimer’s, and even infertility,” he says, referencing an Australian study that revealed women with gum disease took two months longer to conceive than women with excellent oral health.
A healthy smile is also an important part of total-body wellness and as integral to our well-being as sleep, exercise and diet, argue dentists. As Rockville, MD cosmetic dentist Joseph Kravitz, DMD says, “The mouth is connected to the rest of the body.” In other words, unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the mouth doesn’t just stay there.
Did You Know?
Saliva is made of 99 percent water, with a complex mix of proteins, vitamins, minerals, hormones, and small traces of other substances, like food, drinks and toothpaste.
According to a Swedish study, research subjects with the most extreme cases of gum disease had more than double the risk of having a heart attack. The culprit? Endotoxins, secreted by the bacteria present underneath the diseased gum tissue, “enter the bloodstream and attack rough surfaces in the body such as the heart, valves and vessels,” Dr. Kravitz explains. Gum disease has also been associated with diabetes and some kinds of cancer.
Our mouth is our first line of defense.—Dr. Maddahi
If that’s not enough to send you running for your floss, there’s yet another reason to up your oral hygiene game: It can keep you from getting sick. The mouth, just like the gut and your skin, has a microbiome of its own. It’s made up of millions of strains of bacteria that play a role in our immunity by preventing bad bacteria and viruses from colonizing in our mouth, says Beverly Hills, CA cosmetic dentist Kourosh Maddahi, DDS. “Our mouth is our first line of defense,” says Dr. Maddahi.
The Hygiene Protocol
Most people brush twice a day, and a growing number (30 percent!) of millennials brush only once a day, one study found. That’s not nearly enough, says Dr. Kravitz, who tells his patients to brush five to seven times a day, and brush the front and backs of teeth, the tongue, inside of cheeks and top of the mouth, or palate. But, “brush softly,” he warns. Overzealous brushing can lead to gum recession and enamel wear. Chevy Chase, MD cosmetic dentist Claudia Cotca, DDS recommends brushing 15 to 30 minutes after eating, and using an electronic toothbrush— the Oral B Professional Series is her favorite—to control soft but effective brushing. And for those still using alcohol-based mouthwash, it’s time to stop, says Dr. Maddahi. They can be harmful to the microbiome of the mouth.
Flossing daily (at least) is also key, adds Dr. Odiatu. The American Dental Association reported that only 16 percent of people floss daily, and 20 percent floss only when they have something stuck between their teeth. And last, many dentists encourage their patients to get cleanings three—rather than the standard two—times a year to keep gums and teeth healthy.
The Oral Health Diet
Another motivation to eat healthy? The foods we eat impact the pH level of our mouths. We all know sugar can lead to cavities and soda can wear down the enamel of teeth, but Dr. Maddahi says “the hormones in meat and dairy products, as well as the chemicals in artificial sweeteners, can also negatively impact the mouth microbiome.” All the more reason to fill our plates with alkalizing foods such as kale, broccoli, cabbage and other colorful veggies, as well as beans and whole grains. They can help balance more acidic foods like meat and fruit juices.
A low pH in the mouth (your dentist can check yours) has been linked to bad breath, an unbalanced microbiome and other problems. Toothpastes like Twice, which are designed to balance the pH of the mouth and deliver antioxidants and soothing aloe vera, can help regulate bacteria and reduce risk of inflammation. “Ph is a terrific barometer as a fast way to determine health of the mouth. A more neutral ph in the mouth creates a better environment for the good bacteria to thrive, which helps to prevent inflammation of the soft tissue and demineralization of the teeth known as decay,” says New York prosthodontist Jonathan Levine, DMD.
Dr. Cotca, meanwhile, advises patients to sip room-temperature water during mealtimes to keep food particles from adhering to teeth and improve digestion, as metabolism starts in the mouth. Another tip? Take a short pause once your meal is in front of you, before you start to eat. This allows the mouth to fill with saliva, which helps break down food to allow the body to absorb the nutrients.
Eco-friendly and flouride-free, Terra & Co. Brilliant Black Dental Floss ($10) is made with bamboo fiber, activated charcoal and coconut oil, and helps remove plaque buildup in even the tightest spots.
The day and night toothpastes from Twice ($14 for both) contain vitamins A, C and E to help fight free radicals, strengthen gums, promote collagen production, and maintain good bacteria levels for a healthy mouth.
Colgate Optic White Advanced LED Whitening Device ($145) makes at-home whitening easy with a hydrogen peroxide serum and LED-powered whitening tray. Ten consecutive 10-minute applications over a 10-day period are advised for best results.
Lumineux Oral Essentials Oral Microbiome Kit ($45) comes with a toothpaste and mouthwash formulated to freshen breath and neutralize odor-causing toxins while maintaining the good bacteria in your mouth. The bonus: an organic-chic toothbrush.