I Floss Therefore I Am: Oral Health and Systemic Health

The ‘mind-body connection’ is a concept that’s been central to many health philosophies for a long time. For thousands of years certain Eastern philosophies have stressed the importance of de-stressing, seeing harmony between mind, body and spirit as underpinning the goal of good health.

More recently, alternative health practitioners have begun to explore the relationship between oral health and overall (systemic) health. And lately, this ‘mouth-body connection’ has even begun to be examined by clinical medical researchers. This amounts to knocking the Cartesian ‘mind/body’ split way of looking at wellness … on the head. So to speak. When the Renaissance philosopher Descartes coined the fateful aphorism “I think therefore I am”, he laid down the roots of the biomedical model of medicine, which views the head as overlord, lording it over the body, a mere mechanical assemblage of chemicals, organs, bones and flesh. ‘Mind over matter’ – another catchy aphorism – sums it up nicely.

Thankfully, this relatively recent focus on the importance of oral wellness to systemic wellness is well within the spirit of post-Cartesian models of health – in which the health of the whole relies on the harmony of its constituent parts and cannot be fully realised without this harmony.

So, how does oral health impact overall health?

The oral cavity is an ideal breeding ground for harmful bacteria. We know that caries – decay in the enamel of teeth – are caused by the corrosive acids of plaque, a biofilm of bacteria and fungi that forms on the surface of teeth due to fragments of food left in contact with teeth and gums. Not only does plaque create caries, it can also lead to infections of the gums such as gingivitus and periodontitis. Gum diseases lead to bleeding gums, which open a gateway to the bloodstream, through which bacteria can, and do pour … like pandemic-panicked preppers through Coles toilet roll aisles, to utilise a topical simile.

Medical research has charted significant correlations between inflamed, bleeding gums and a range of serious systemic ailments that include: heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer. While these causal links between oral and systemic health were initially attributed to the aforementioned invasion of bacteria entering the bloodstream via the mouth, more recently, medical researchers have examined the role of inflammation in the transmission of oral nasties to whole-body nasties.

You see, diseases of the gums begin with low grade inflammation of the soft tissue (gingivitus) that, if allowed to develop, grow into severe inflammation extending to tissue and bone (periodontitus). Inflammation is a response to bacterial infection – a way that the body attempts to restore equilibrium. Oral inflammation has now been found to be a causal factor in inflammation in the greater systemic environment. Ongoing research has been indicating that the activation of bodily defences in the oral cavity through macrophages – a type of white blood cell that fights infections – can lead to excessive immune responses that can trigger the serious systemic disorders listed above.

So, existence is filled with strange paradox is it not? Just as pandemics can be people-threatening but planet-saving, so bacteria – and our bodies’ immune systems – can be both our friends and our enemies. The trick is getting the balance just right. The ‘mouth-body’ connection, just like the ‘mind-body’ connection exists as a potent reminder of the interconnectedness of all things – something alternative health practitioners have known for a long time. And now, armed with this knowledge, what should we do? Well, do our best to maintain good oral health of course, by rinsing, flossing and gently brushing every day.

A good oral health regime based on these three practices forms our first and best line of defence against microbes that would threaten our ways of life. Beyond this, there are other, totally natural substances that we can enlist in our struggles against inflammation – and they’ll be looked at in another post.

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