Practising good oral hygiene – for example, by brushing your teeth twice daily, flossing, and cutting back on sugary foods – is important for keeping your teeth healthy. But research has shown it can influence your overall health and wellbeing too.

According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), it’s estimated that 50-90% of the adult population in the UK and the USA have some degree of gum disease. This is significant because science suggests that gum disease can increase the risk of various health conditions – including a 50% higher risk of developing certain forms of cancer.

With this in mind, we’ll be covering eight reasons why oral hygiene is key for overall health.

What’s the connection between oral hygiene and overall health?

What’s the connection between oral hygiene and overall health

In a healthy mouth, over 700 different species of bacteria exist – some beneficial and others potentially harmful. Therefore, practising good oral hygiene is important for keeping mouth bacteria under control and strengthening the body’s natural defences.

If bacteria are left to grow out of control, they can affect the health of your teeth and gums, and increase the risk of oral infections, tooth decay, and gum disease (also known as periodontal disease).

Gum disease is mainly caused by infection and inflammation of the gums and bones that surround and support the teeth – and, if left untreated, can begin to affect the rest of the body.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Most oral diseases and conditions share modifiable risk factors with the leading noncommunicable diseases (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases)”.

It’s also important to note that age makes us more prone to receding gums and problems with saliva production, which can put us at greater risk of issues like tooth decay and gum disease. This makes it more important than ever to take care of your oral health.

8 reasons why oral hygiene is key for overall health

Below, we’ll cover some of the various ways that oral hygiene can affect overall health…

1. Good oral hygiene is important for gum health

Neglecting oral hygiene can allow harmful bacteria in the mouth to grow and develop into plaque – a sticky deposit that clings to teeth.

Plaque buildup can cause gum inflammation and increase the risk of gum disease. Not only can gum disease feed into other health issues, but it can also be incredibly painful – causing gum tenderness, swelling, bleeding, and tooth loss.

2. Good oral hygiene may decrease cancer risk

There’s evidence to suggest that gum disease may increase the risk of certain cancers.

This study looked at two conditions that are common precursors to colorectal cancer: benign tumours called adenomas and small growths known as serrated polyps. Researchers found that people with gum disease had a 17% higher risk of developing both conditions – and those who’d lost four or more teeth had a 20% higher risk of developing serrated polyps.

Another study found that people with gum disease had a 43% higher risk of developing oesophageal cancer and a 52% higher risk of developing stomach cancer, compared with people whose gums were healthier.

While more research is needed to understand this connection, some experts have suggested that it could be due to gum disease tissue circulating in the blood and encouraging the growth of cancer cells in other areas of the body. This may also explain the strong link between gum disease and oesophageal cancer in particular – because of the area’s close proximity to the mouth.

3. Good oral hygiene may improve heart health

If bacteria in the mouth is left to grow out of control, it can begin to enter the blood and spread throughout your body.

Bacteria that reach the heart can increase inflammation, cause delicate arteries to narrow, and elevate a person’s risk of having a heart attack. Research suggests that gum disease increases a person’s risk of having a heart attack by nearly 50%.

Some research has also revealed that the body’s immune response to the bacteria – inflammation – may cause further damage to blood vessels, including in the heart.

4. Good oral hygiene may boost lung health

While oral hygiene can affect all areas of the body, it’s particularly connected with lung health. Because our mouths and upper respiratory systems are directly linked, oral bacteria have easier access to the respiratory system compared to other organs.

Pneumonia, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are some of the most common respiratory diseases linked with poor oral hygiene.

This study found that the risk for pneumonia was higher in people who had noticeable dental issues, such as cavities and missing teeth, compared to those with good oral hygiene. And another study noted that COPD patients with gum disease may be more susceptible to respiratory infections like pneumonia.

A strong link has also been drawn between gum disease and asthma – with this study noting that asthmatics were more likely to suffer from gum disease and have higher levels of plaque in their mouths than non-asthmatics.

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5. Good oral hygiene may reduce the risk of diabetes

Research has identified a link between oral hygiene and the risk of diabetes.

One reason for this is that poor oral hygiene can cause inflammation – and inflammation makes it more difficult for the body to use insulin properly (also known as insulin resistance), which can lead to the development of diabetes.

In fact, studies have revealed that people with gum disease are up to 50% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those with healthy gums.

6. Gum disease may reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis

According to the Arthritis Foundation, there’s strong evidence that rheumatoid arthritis (RA) doesn’t start in the joints. Instead, it may be the result of autoantibodies (antibodies that mistakenly target and react with the body’s tissues and organs) produced elsewhere in the body – including in the mouth.

Researchers have found that patients with RA were twice as likely to have gum disease compared to those without RA. It also found that patients with the most mouth plaque, bleeding, and gum tissue breakdown had the worst RA symptoms, including increased inflammation.

Other studies have also found that, even with treatment, RA patients with gum disease continue to have severe arthritis symptoms and are 50% less likely to be in remission.

7. Good oral hygiene may help to protect against Alzheimer’s disease

Some research has linked the bacteria that causes gum disease, Porphyromonas gingivalis, with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Studies have suggested that this bacteria can move from the mouth to the brain and, once there, release enzymes (proteins) called gingipains that are known to destroy nerve cells. In turn, this can lead to memory loss and, eventually, Alzheimer’s.

In this study, which examined the brains of 53 deceased people who’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, high levels of the bacteria were found in almost all of them.

8. Good oral hygiene is linked with fertility and pregnancy outcomes

Some research has drawn a link between oral health and female fertility. This study found that women with gum disease took an average of two months longer to get pregnant than those with healthy gums.

There’s also evidence that poor oral hygiene during pregnancy can increase the risk of things like premature delivery, low birth weight, and pre-eclampsia.

However, it’s important to note that pregnancy can make women more prone to gum disease and cavities because of changing hormones. Statistics estimate that nearly 60-75% of pregnant women have gingivitis – an early stage of gum disease where gums become red and swollen. For this reason, it’s particularly important for women of childbearing age to look after their oral hygiene if they plan to start a family.

How can I improve my oral hygiene?

how can I improve my oral hygiene

Maintaining good oral hygiene goes far beyond brushing your teeth twice a day.

Steps like flossing once a day, using mouthwash, and visiting the dentist every six months should also be part of your oral hygiene routine. For example, not only does flossing remove food from between your teeth before it turns to plaque, but it’s also an effective way to improve blood flow and reduce inflammation in the gums.

You might also like to consider investing in an electric toothbrush, because studies have shown that these are more effective at reducing plaque and gingivitis than manual brushing.

Unsurprisingly, diet plays a major role in oral hygiene too, so paying attention to what you eat and making changes where necessary can make a big difference.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that people limit their sugar intake to less than 10% of their daily calories – though, lowering this to 5% would even further reduce the risk of tooth decay and other oral issues. This is because tooth decay occurs when dental plaque turns sugar into acid. Check out our article, 9 ways to cut back on added sugar, for tips on this.

Drinking more tap water, and adding more fruit and vegetables to your diet is also helpful.

For more tips, have a read of our article; 9 ways to improve oral hygiene.

Final thoughts…

Maintaining good oral hygiene goes far beyond having a sparkly smile – it’s intrinsically linked to your overall health too. But, the good news is that by practising good, simple habits like flossing, cutting back on sugary foods, and paying regular visits to the dentist, you’ll be investing in your long-term health too.

For further reading, head over to the general health section of our website where you’ll find information on everything from heart and lung health to alternative therapies and important health checks.

How do you stay on top of your oral hygiene? Has anything in this article surprised you? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.