Maintaining good oral health is a crucial component of holistic care, including cardiac and respiratory health. Many people aren’t aware of this. You don’t have to convince people to see their primary care physician, but sometimes it’s harder to convince them to see the dentist.
“Your mouth is the gateway to your body, and while treating and fueling your body properly is important, I can usually tell within seconds of an exam that there might be something going on that can affect your most important organ: your heart,” says Vincent Ip DDS, FAGD of Smile 360. “Worn teeth, darker teeth, enlarged tonsils, high blood pressure, plaque buildup — these are all things I look for that indicate a deeper issue.”
During a comprehensive dental exam, your dentist should review your medical history and medications, record your blood pressure, look for possible signs of oral cancer and screen for potential sleep breathing disorders. Tissues of the mouth can tell the story of your respiratory and cardiac health.
A gingival display, more commonly known as a “gummy smile,” can actually be a sign of childhood mouth-breathing, a known link to hypertension and other medical issues. Your dentist might also notice a “tongue-tie,” which is a well-recognized proponent of speech disorders, but a less commonly known cause of poor palate formation in infants, resulting in a narrower and poorer patient airway as an adult. Reduced airway patency, associated with sleep apnea, reduces blood oxygenation and can lead to serious heart conditions such as an enlarged heart and hypertension, increasing risk for fatal illnesses including heart attack and stroke. In addition, stress, stimulants including caffeine and nicotine and a lack of oxygen can stimulate your sympathetic nervous system, causing you to grind or clench your teeth. A healthy smile is important to the function of your heart. Being happy sends endorphins to your brain that affect the emotional side of your daily life.
All of these things leave clear evidence of a larger issue on your dental surfaces. Here is a closer look at some things to look for in your mouth that could be affecting and stressing your heart unnecessarily.
Sleep Breathing Disorders
People who grind and clench their teeth at night may wake up with a headache, never feel fully rested, wake during the night and/or have worn, flat teeth. We all know that any type of stress is bad for the heart. Grinding and clenching during the day or night is a red flag that stress is present and needs to be addressed. It’s important to get to the root of any problem with the appropriate healthcare professional.
Imagine you are trying to get a good night’s sleep, and you keep waking in the night. What could be causing this? Your heart could be stressed to the point that it wakes you to keep you alive.
“There are many factors that contribute to a sleep breathing disorder,” Ip says. “I look for enlarged tonsils, tongue-tie, an Epworth Sleepiness Score and medical history to start. Signs of grinding and clenching also play a part. If I see indicators, I would recommend further investigation.”
Commonly, this would be an easy home sleep test (HST) to screen for sleep breathing disorders. Depending on the symptoms and HST screening results, an oral appliance therapy (OAT) by a dentist might be what you need to protect your smile and lessen the effects of the stress on your heart.
Plaque buildup, gum inflammation and bleeding gums is a major health issue and something that causes added stress to your heart. Studies show that there is a direct correlation with gum disease and heart disease. People diagnosed with periodontal disease have two to three times the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Practicing healthy oral habits and visiting your dentist and hygienist for an exam and professional cleaning at least twice a year is the best way to fend off periodontal disease. However, if you’ve fallen off track and are diagnosed with periodontal disease, you will need a deeper cleaning to remove the infectious tartar from below the gumline, and you will need to visit the dentist more frequently to help keep the diseased bacteria at bay. When bacteria is present anywhere in your body, the heart and other organs have to work harder to fight the effects. Treating gum disease is no different than treating any other bacterial infection — it needs to be done with the help of a medical professional.
Emotional Side of Smiling
When most people think about the heart, they think of love and how emotions make you feel.
“I have many patients who are embarrassed to smile, and this hurts my heart and theirs,” Ip says. “One of the best parts of my job is helping someone smile again.”
Researchers at the University of Kansas found that smiling reduces the body’s response to stress and contributes to a lower heart rate in tense situations. There is no doubt that a smile can change the way you feel, and sharing a smile can help others, too. A smile can get a makeover in many ways — repositioning crooked teeth, veneers to rejuvenate worn, discolored or broken teeth or something as simple as a professional dental cleaning and whitening regimen to help brighten the smile.
“When you have a healthy smile, you have a physically and mentally happy heart, and when you have a happy heart, you are just happier — it’s as simple as that,” Ip says. Having a well-rounded focus on your health is the best way to ensure a long and content life. If you are exhibiting any of the signs or symptoms associated with any of these indicators, get screened by a healthcare professional, such as your dentist, to find the right treatment customized for you.