What your parents never told you about your teeth

18 May 2018
Your oral health is more important than you might think
We unpack the truth about your pearly whites and explore the connection between oral health and overall health and wellbeing.

We often think of our teeth as a cosmetic issue - sure, we might like them to be a little whiter or straighter, but a visit to the dentist is something that we can keep bumping down the to-do list… right?

It turns out our teeth are more important than we might give them credit for.

"I wish more people realised that by improving your oral health it can significantly benefit your general health," says Dr Christina Adler from the Institute of Dental Research.

That's why our staff at the University of Sydney School of Dentistry are so passionate about "putting the mouth back into health" - that is, reframing our attitudes towards our teeth so that we view oral health as a critical part of our overall health and wellbeing.

Here are 5 things you might not know about your teeth and oral health.

1. You're (probably) not brushing right

Did you know that you shouldn't rinse your mouth straight after brushing? Other common mistakes include eating immediately after brushing, replacing your toothbrush infrequently or using an incorrect technique.

"It is essential to brush your teeth correctly by using fluoridated toothpaste, dividing your mouth into four quadrants and brushing each quadrant for at least 30 seconds," says Dr Neeta Prabhu, Head of Discipline, Paediatric Dentistry.

"Brush your teeth twice a day and use interdental brushes or dental floss to clean between the teeth," adds Professor Joerg Eberhard, Chair Lifespan Oral Health. "If you look at your own mouth, you'll see that bleeding gums start in the gaps between two teeth."

2. It could be causing stomach problems

You might have heard of microbiomes - they've been getting a lot of traction in medicine and health news lately. Basically, they're the microorganisms (bacteria) that live in our bodies.

"The oral microbiome (the dense and diverse community of microbes covering the mouth) is responsible for causing dental decay and periodontal disease, says Dr Adler. "But it can also influence the makeup of bacteria in your gut, and hence has the potential to have flow on effects to an individual's metabolic health."

3. It's linked with chronic conditions

When we think about preventing chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease and diabetes, we often focus on things like exercise and diet. But scientific research shows that poor oral health also increases the risk of these systematic diseases. 

"For example, poor oral health is closely linked with cardiovascular disease," says Dr Prabhu. "Some researchers suggest that oral bacteria may trigger an inflammatory response leading to narrowing of the arteries and increasing the risks of blood clots."

"A lot of research has been done that show people with good oral health have low risk to get diabetes or diabetes complications," says Professor Eberhard. "Patients with diabetes have a very high risk (4.8 times higher) of getting gum disease and loosing teeth. How can a diabetic patient eat healthily, if they are not able to chew properly?"

Poor oral health is also linked with Alzheimer's, adverse pregnancy outcomes, arthritis and stroke. Read more about the research.

4. It all starts with your baby teeth

According to Dr Prabhu, baby teeth are often undervalued because they're seen as replaceable.

"On the contrary, baby teeth are essential for the development of the adult teeth and act as natural space maintainers, and assist with speech, mastication, and the overall psychological development of the child," she says.

"A child's mouth begins to colonise with bacteria even before the teeth come through, and therefore establishing oral hygiene practices from a very young age is the key to good oral health."

5. You should go to the dentist more frequently

With all these health implications, it's little surprise that dental surgeries are often persistent with their reminders when you're due for a checkup.

"Regular dental visits once every 6 to 12 months is the key to prevention," says Dr Prabhu.

She also recommends children have their first dental visit as soon as the first teeth begin to come through or before the first birthday.

Putting the mouth back into health

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