February is Gum Disease Awareness Month. That designation presents an opportunity to highlight the importance of gum health, which is often overlooked and underappreciated. Healthy gums are essential for maintaining healthy teeth and bones in your mouth. Conversely, gum disease increases your risk of developing such chronic diseases as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, dementia, and pregnancy complications, according to Harvard Health Publications.
Unfortunately, gum disease is prevalent within our society: Almost half of all adult Americans suffer from gum disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In this post, we explore what causes gum disease, how to prevent it and maintain healthy gum, and why healthy gums are important to oral health and overall health.
What causes gum disease?
Gum disease, a serious infection that damages the soft tissue around teeth, is caused by a buildup of bacteria in the mouth. When food particles are left between gums, they attract harmful bacteria, which then produce acids and toxins that create an environment that starts to irritate and inflame the gum tissue.
Over time, the toxic environment can become damaging to the gums and bone that supports the teeth, eventually leading to loose teeth--or worse, tooth loss. Gum disease can also lead to bad breath, tooth sensitivity, and receding gums.
There are two main stages of gum disease: gingivitis and periodontitis. Gingivitis is the earlier and less severe stage, characterized by red, swollen, and bleeding gums. If left untreated, it can progress to periodontitis, where the gums pull away from the teeth, creating bacteria-infested pockets that cause further damage to the gums and bone.
Critical factors in gum health
Healthy gums provide a strong foundation for teeth, helping to keep them in place, and are important for proper form and function. The following factors play a critical role in gum health:
Saliva is essential for maintaining healthy gums. It helps to wash away food particles and bacteria from the mouth, neutralizes acids that can damage tooth enamel, and contains antibodies that can help to fight off infections.
Saliva also plays a role in the healing process of gum tissue. When the gums are damaged, saliva helps to promote the growth of new tissue and blood vessels, aiding in the healing process.
The Oral Microbiome
The oral microbiome is a complex ecosystem of microorganisms that helps to protect against harmful bacteria and promote a healthy environment in the mouth when in balance. However, when the oral microbiome is disrupted, it can lead to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, which can eventually lead to gum disease.
Research has found that certain harmful bacteria unchecked in the oral microbiome are associated with an increased risk of gum disease. These bacteria produce enzymes that break down the gum tissue, leading to inflammation and damage. By contrast, friendly bacteria in the oral microbiome are beneficial and can help to protect against gum disease if their population is at sufficient levels.
Maintaining a healthy oral microbiome is essential for maintaining gum health. To promote a healthy oral microbiome, it is important to follow good oral hygiene practices, such as brushing, and flossing, twice daily, removing any leftover food from gums.
Diet and Hydration
A healthy diet is important for maintaining good gum health. Some foods can promote gum health, while others can increase the risk of gum disease. These foods can help to promote a healthy oral microbiome by providing the nutrients that the bacteria need to thrive.
Foods to eat
- Vitamin C-rich foods. Vitamin C is essential for maintaining healthy gum tissue. Foods like oranges, kiwis, strawberries, and broccoli are rich in vitamin C.
- Leafy greens. Spinach, kale, and collard greens are rich in other vitamins and minerals that promote gum health.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and can help to reduce gum inflammation. Foods like salmon, tuna, and flaxseeds are rich in omega-3s.
- Calcium-rich foods. Broccoli, turnip greens, sesame seeds, figs, squash, and dairy are important for maintaining strong teeth and healthy gums.
Foods to Avoid
- Sugary and acidic foods. Acids--and the bad bacteria that thrive on sugars--can erode tooth enamel and lead to gum disease. Avoid sugary and acidic drinks like soda and sports drinks, and limit your intake of sugary snacks like candy and pastries.
- Sticky foods. Caramel, gummy candy, and other chewy and sticky foods can get stuck in your teeth and promote the growth of bacteria that cause gum disease.
Staying hydrated is also important for maintaining good gum health. Dehydration can cause dry mouth, which can lead to an increase in bacteria and an increased risk of gum disease because of disruption in the microbiome.
Drinking water is the best way to stay hydrated and promote good gum health. Aim to drink at least eight glasses of water per day, and more if you are engaging in physical activity or spending time in hot weather.
Stress can also have a significant impact on gum health. When the body is under stress, it produces cortisol, a hormone that can weaken the immune system and increase inflammation. Chronic stress can lead to chronic inflammation, which can contribute to the development of gum disease. Stress can also lead to poor oral hygiene habits, such as skipping, brushing, and flossing or eating sugary foods to cope with stress.
Other factors that impact gum health
Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can disrupt the balance of bacteria in the mouth. If you want to maintain a healthy oral microbiome, avoid these types of habits and replace them with healthier ones.
Gum disease and systemic health
Scientific and medical research in recent years has made it increasingly clear that gum disease directly impacts systemic health outcomes. The inflammation caused by gum disease can have negative effects on other parts of the body, leading to an increased risk of conditions like heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and polycystic ovary syndrome (or PCOS).
That’s why maintaining good oral hygiene habits and seeing a dentist regularly is not only important for your oral health: these actions can potentially prevent other serious health problems.