Most of us think brushing is all about building a brighter smile, but it turns out good oral hygiene (and regular checkups) can help prevent everything from headaches to heart disease. In fact, it may even save your life, says Chatelaine dental-health expert Dr. Rick Glassman, co-director of the department of dentistry at the California Health & Longevity Institute. Unfortunately, Canadians are getting a failing grade in oral health. A recent national smile survey revealed only 4 percent of people regularly brush and floss. (Dentists say we should be brushing our teeth — and tongues — at least twice a day, as well as flossing once a day to get at the third of each tooth’s surface that a brush can reach.) The good news? There are a few simple tricks that can help you score a brighter smile and a healthier body. Best of all, your mouth may hold the answers you need to look and feel better — here’s what it could be trying to tell you.
1. You wake up with headaches.
Consistently waking up on the wrong side of the bed with a sore jaw or unexplained headache? You might be a grinder, and that’s a signal you may be suffering from chronic stress. “Stress often makes us unconsciously clench or grind teeth while sleeping,” says Glassman. “Plus, grinding can wear down teeth, making them prone to chips and breaks.”
Fix it! Wear a night guard. A dentist can custom-fit it in two visits. “You’ll save yourself hours of time in the dentist’s chair just by wearing it at night,” says Glassman. Steer clear of soft and spongy DIY kits, which can lead to increased grinding. Tackle stress by delegating more, learning to meditate and taking deep breathing breaks during the day.
2. You have dragon breath.
Occasional bouts of bad breath are normal (especially after eating onions or garlic!), but constant bad breath is not. While the cause can be as simple as not eating enough complex carbs (causing the body to release foul-smelling chemicals called ketones), bad breath can also be a sign of an untreated sinus or lung infection, bronchitis, diabetes, or liver or kidney problems.
Fix it! Whole grains can help neutralize bad breath, so eat more brown rice and whole-grain pastas and cereals. If diet tweaks don’t help, look to your tongue. “The majority of bad breath comes from residue on the tongue,” says Glassman. “Consider scraping it after every meal.” Chronic bad breath can also be a sign that you’re not brushing and flossing properly, so re-evaluate your routine: Maybe it’s time to switch to an electric toothbrush or amp up your flossing. Mouth rinses can also help — just make sure to use a brand approved by the Canadian Dental Association (CDA), so it does more than mask odours. Listerine, Peridex and Crest Pro-Health are the only three brands with stamps of approval from the CDA, because their active ingredients are clinically proven to kill odour-causing plaque and gingivitis germs.
3. You’re prone to cavities.
Cavities are a telltale sign of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. If you lack vitamin D, teeth may become soft and vulnerable to decay; Japanese researchers recently linked low levels of vitamins C and E with an increased level of gum disease, too.
Fix it! Enjoy nutrient-rich foods like fish, nuts and low-acidity fruits and vegetables. And avoid enamel-eroding bubbly drinks like sparkling water and energy drinks.
4. Your teeth are super-sensitive.
Sensitivity to cold or sweets almost always points to enamel erosion or decay from cavities, says Glassman. The causes of heat sensitivity are harder to pinpoint; it may indicated exposed nerves or inflamed gums. Take note if gums are chronically inflamed (flesh will be visibly more red, less pink), because inflammation in one area of the body often means inflammation another.
Fix it! Glassman says 90 percent of damage (like enamel erosion) happens 10 minutes after eating, so swish water around in your mouth after meals, chew sugar-free gum with cavity-fighting xylitol or eat apples, carrots or celery (nature’s toothbrushes). If diligent dental care doesn’t fix the problem, ask your dentist about fluoride-gel treatments to combat sensitivity.
5. Your mouth is always dry.
If your mouth feels as parched as a desert, it may indicate hypothyroidism or diabetes. Dry mouth can cause cavities, because saliva’s not available to help protect tooth enamel and gum tissue, says Glassman.
Fix it! Regularly sip water or sleep with a humidifier in your room. If your mouth’s still dry or you’re always thirsty, ask your doctor for a blood test to rule out hormone- or insulin-regulation issues.
6. You have a sore in your mouth that just won’t heal.
This could be a sign of oral cancer. While smokers and heavy drinkers used to make up the majority of oral-cancer cases, doctors are now seeing a rise in the disease among young, healthy patients who don’t smoke or drink. Experts link it to HPV (a virus that can be spread through oral sex), which has been detected in up to 36 percent of patients with oral cancers.
Fix it! Oral cancer is largely preventable. “Examine your mouth on a regular basis for anything out of the ordinary. Look inside (especially on the floor of the mouth and edges of the tongue) for white, red or speckled patches, lumps, changes in texture or swelling, and note if it’s suddenly difficult to chew or swallow,” says Glassman. “If you’re worried, ask your dentist for an oral-sreening test.” Although the C-word is scary, catching it early and treating it can increase survival rates by 90 percent. Glassman recommends quitting smoking (it’s already staining your teeth!), limiting drinking and using lip balms with SPF to protect you from lip cancers caused by sun exposure.
7. You’re having fertility issues.
In a study of nearly 2,000 women, researchers discovered those who didn’t regularly floss took up to two months longer to conceive. Skipping out on flossing once you’re expecting is also problematic: It can put you and your baby at a higher risk of premature birth. That’s because inflamed gums can increase the body’s production of the chemical prostaglandin E2, which is also found in labour-inducing meds.
Fix it! Make flossing part of your routine. “Carry a reel in your purse, or try doing it in the shower,” says Glassman. If you are pregnant, watch out for excessive bleeding (also a sign of gum disease) due to hormone level fluctuations.
8. You have a family history of heart disease or stroke.
If brushing leads to bleeding gums, you may be putting your heart at risk. When plaque (the sticky material made up of bacteria and food debris) forms along the gum line, gums can become inflamed and bleed easily. “Plaque buildup is like having a chronic low-grade infection in your mouth,” says Glassman. Because gums share a close connection with pathways to the heart, any inflammation along the gum line gives infectious germs easier access to the bloodstream and the heart. “It’s no surprise that several species of bacteria from dental plaque have been identified in the arterial plaque found in patients with heart disease,” says Glassman.
Fix it! Regular dental appointments may reduce the risk of heart disease in women by 33 percent, say researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. Flossing is essential, and you can be your own hygienist between visits. “Once or twice a week, rinse with salt water (1/4 tsp salt to one cup water), or pour hydrogen peroxide on your toothbrush, then sprinkle on baking soda, before brushing,” says Glassman.
6.4 = The number of years you could add to your life by brushing and flossing every day and scheduling time to see your dentist twice a year, says Chatelaine health advisor Dr. Rick Glassman.
Did you know? The colour, texture and shape of your tongue can also reveal what’s going on inside you. The tongue is a road map of different organs in the body, say experts in traditional Chinese medicine. It can provide clues to whether you may be anemic, dehydrated or suffering from lung or kidney problems. Pale or bright-red tongues may indicate iron deficiency. Particularly purple hues may mean high cholesterol, and tongues with thick white coatings could point to an oral infection.