Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Periodontal or “gum disease” is one of the most common ailments in the U.S., affecting some 80 percent of adults and 30 percent of children, according to research compiled over the past 25 years. It can range from mild, with just slight bleeding of the gum tissue, to severe, resulting in loss of the jawbone and teeth. Along the way, there are many consequences for our general health. Sound important? It is. Read on for answers to some of the most common questions about periodontal disease, as well as natural strategies for prevention and treatment.
What Is Gum Disease?
Gum disease begins as an inflammation of the tissue surrounding the teeth. You might notice this as redness, puffiness, receding gums, tenderness, and occasional bleeding when you floss or brush. At this stage, called gingivitis, the damage is reversible. But as time passes, inflammation settles into the jawbone that supports the teeth, and little by little, the bone reacts by dissolving away. Teeth become loose, gum tissue recedes, and ultimately the process causes tooth loss. This is called periodontitis, and it can be a disfiguring and painful journey.
This local destructive process almost always has a long, chronic (slowly progressing) period that may last years before the final acute phases occur. At this point, your options for treatment are fewer, more costly, and have less favorable and less predictable outcomes.
What Causes Gum Disease?
There are several factors that lead to gum disease. (Note that age is not one of them. Gum disease is not an inevitable consequence of aging.)
- Improper home care (brushing, flossing, and tongue cleaning)
- Lack of regular professional care (cleaning and evaluation)
- Poor nutrition (too much refined sugar, starch, and processed foods)
- Stress (increase in cortisol and hormones that favor inflammation)
- Regular use of tobacco products
- Acidic, salivary pH (from sipping on “fizzy” drinks)
- Depressed immune system
- Hormonal changes
- Intimate, chronic oral exposure to someone who has gum disease
- Family history
If we do not remove dental plaque-a sticky material on the surface of the teeth composed of bacteria, sugars, and mucus from saliva-at least twice per day, the inflammatory process can begin very quickly. In just a few days, gum tissue begins to react. At this point, a toothbrush and dental floss can remove the plaque. But if plaque is left on the teeth for a longer period-say, weeks-it starts to become calcified by the normal mineral salts in our saliva. The resulting barnacle-like deposits can then only be removed by a dental professional scraping them off the teeth.
These plaque and calculus (or “tartar”) deposits are like apartment complexes for the destructive bacteria that cause gum disease. Being held very closely to the gum tissue, often between the teeth, they quickly win the battle with our immune system, and the process of gum disease begins. And these bacteria don’t just stay in the mouth. They move, via swallowing, into the bloodstream and other areas of the body, where they can cause numerous other problems.
What Are the Consequences of Gum Disease?
Gum disease can lead to a host of serious health problems. Here are some alarming research facts:
If you have gum disease, you have a much greater chance of a coronary event than someone who smokes but does not have gum disease. It appears that the cause is from circulating periodontal microbes along with increased fibrinogen (a natural clotting agent) levels and increased levels of systemic inflammation. Also, periodontal pathogens have been found in arterial plaques.
- If you are pregnant and have even mild gum disease, you have a 300-500 percent greater chance of a low birth weight child from a preterm birth according to the Academy of General Dentistry. Preeclampsia (abnormal blood pressure with pregnancy) is also associated with periodontal disease.
- With gum disease, you have a 600 percent increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Periodontal microorganisms have also been found in stroke-area brain tissue.
- With gum disease you have nearly a 48 percent greater overall risk of cancer, including greater risk of pancreatic, stomach, lung, kidney, colorectal, and esophageal cancers. Postmenopausal women with gum disease have a 14 percent greater risk of breast cancer.
- Your chance of respiratory disease is increased.
- You have an increased risk of developing diabetes.
- Gum disease is a main cause of gastric and duodenal ulcers.
- It may lead to and aggravate arthritis.
What Can I Do About Gum Disease?
First off, no one is going to tell you how great you are for practicing daily dental care. You need be self-motivated. There is an old saying, “Only brush those teeth you want to keep.”
It takes a little work, but you can keep your teeth and gums naturally clean and healthy, and it starts with regular and proper home care:
- In the morning-It’s vital to clean your mouth before you eat or drink anything in the morning. Otherwise, you will just swallow all of the bacteria that accumulated overnight in your mouth. Scrape your tongue, floss, and brush-in that order.
- During the day-As a substitute for brushing, rinse your mouth within 3-5 minutes of eating throughout the day. I advise vigorous swishing with plain water after eating. If you notice any food stuck between your teeth, be sure to floss, as that food will begin to irritate gums and become a breeding ground for bacteria.
- Before bed-Brush and floss again in the evening, the last thing before bed.
It’s also important to get regular checkups. Teeth should be professionally cleaned 2-4 times per year. If you already have gum disease, there are several treatments that may help. In many moderate to advanced cases, where there has been bone loss, it may be necessary to surgically remove unhealthy tissue and/or perform laser treatments, bone augmentation procedures, and even tooth removal. None of these sound very fun, but with the skilled specialists today, solutions are available.
As always, though, prevention is the best approach, and helping children see the value of good home care early in life can go a long way toward avoiding problems in the future.
It’s vital to clean your mouth before you eat or drink anything in the morning. Otherwise, you will just swallow all of the bacteria that accumulated overnight in your mouth.
Oral Health Product Guide
To get the most from your at-home dental routine, you need the proper tools. Here’s what to look for.
Whether you choose a manual or an electric brush, it should have extra-soft bristles to avoid abrasion of the tooth structure and recession of gum tissue. Electric brushes are particularly useful for children, older people, and the disabled. Clean bristles twice a week by soaking the head of your toothbrush in 3% hydrogen peroxide for 20 minutes. Brushes should be replaced every 2-3 months.
Avoid using toothpastes that contain any of the following ingredients: triclosan, synthetic foaming agents (lauryl/laureth sulfates), gritty abrasives, artificial sweeteners, and artificial colors or flavors. This is especially important for children, as they tend to swallow a lot of toothpaste.
Do not use dental floss that contains Teflon (fluorocarbons).
The following nutrients are particularly good for the bone and gum tissues of the mouth.
- Zinc for immune system strength
- Calcium, magnesium, and silica for bone health
- Vitamin C with bioflavonoids for healing and connective tissue health
- Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) for vascular health and energy production within cells
- Probiotics to reestablish a healthy oral biome and replace the “bad bugs”
Doing it Right
Brushing, flossing, and tongue scraping are all important parts of overall dental health, but they aren’t nearly as effective if you don’t know the proper techniques.
- Brushing: The tooth brush bristle for manual or electric brushes should be placed 1/2 on the tooth and 1/2 on the gum tissue. Brushing motion should be small, overlapping circles. Spend 1 minute brushing the upper and 1 minute on the lower teeth.
- Flossing: Floss should be wriggled between the teeth, not snapped, and then moved gently and slightly below the gum tissue, and also wrapped around the tooth to remove plaque.
- Tongue Scraping: Tongue scraping is superior to brushing the tongue, and it’s best to use a metal scraper.