Protect Your Teeth, Protect Your Health

If you don’t brush your teeth twice a day, you could be putting more than your oral health at risk. In a new study published in the British Medical Journal researchers found that people with poor oral hygiene had a 70 percent increased likelihood of developing heart disease compared to those who brushed regularly.

In addition to heart disease, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, cancer, and a host of other health problems have been linked to oral issues. We now know that infections in the mouth can lead to systemic inflammation, which sets the stage for and exacerbates numerous health problems throughout the body.

I shouldn’t have to tell you this but, as the study above demonstrates, the first step really is making sure you are brushing on a regular basis. While it may not be feasible to brush after every meal, making sure you do it at least once in the morning and once before bedtime is crucial. You’ll also want to replace your toothbrush regularly. The American Dental Association suggests that you get a new one every three to four months—sooner if the bristles are frayed or otherwise damaged. To kill bacteria and germs between replacements, try soaking your toothbrush in 3 percent hydrogen peroxide for five minutes at a time, once a week.

Good oral hygiene also includes regular flossing. A study presented at a recent American Heart Association conference looked at 300 patients in a lifestyle modification program for lowering cardiovascular disease risk factors. They found that those who flossed their teeth at least every other day for six months were able to lower their C-reactive protein (CRP) levels into the normal range—and when they stopped flossing, CRP went back up. Another study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that aggressive treatment of severe periodontal disease resulted in marked improvements in the function and health of the arteries over six months.

Yes, you read that right. There is one “sugar” that I recommend for oral health. It’s xylitol and it’s actually a sugar alcohol used to sweeten many sugar-free gums and candies. This naturally occurring carbohydrate—which is derived from corn but is also found in many fruits and vegetables—looks and tastes like sugar, but the similarities end there. Unlike sugar, xylitol is slowly and only partially absorbed by the body and, though it tastes sweet, it actually behaves like an “anti-sugar” in your mouth.

Xylitol inhibits the growth of S. mutans, which is unable to metabolize the sweetener for energy. Xylitol also raises the pH of the mouth, making it less hospitable to S. mutans and, over time, other harmless bacteria crowd out these microorganisms. Studies have shown that xylitol reduces periodontal disease and provides continued protection for months to years after use. In a study carried out at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio, patients were given gum or small candies sweetened with xylitol after meals and sugary snacks. After an average of 1.8 years, patients had significantly fewer cavities at the roots of the teeth, and vastly improved gum health. Xylitol products can be found in most health food stores.

These suggestions can improve not only your oral health but your overall health as well.

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