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The Gateway to Good Health - how a healthy mouth can mean a healthy body.

Funny teeth

When we think about our overall health, how many of us consider what is going on in our mouths beyond just having a bright smile?  The mouth is the gateway to the rest of our body and not taking care of it can pave the way for a variety of health issues as well as affecting the way in which the body use our food.

For a start, the process of digestion begins in the mouth by breaking down our food, both mechanically by chewing and enzymatically, with the release of digestive enzymes in the saliva, preparing it for further digestion.

We all take saliva for granted, never giving a thought to its importance in our everyday lives and the amazing properties that it possesses!  In traditional Chinese medicine, saliva is given the same importance as the blood and changes in saliva are considered an indication of wellness.  Saliva is crucial for oral hygiene, floating away food debris and keeping the growth of bacteria at bay.  Saliva production decreases during sleep and this is why we notice “dragon breath” in the morning! 

Saliva allows us to taste our food, dissolving it into parts that our taste buds recognise and it contains enzymes that start the process of digesting carbohydrates.  Try chewing on a piece of white bread or pasta and see how long it takes to become “sweet” – this is the enzyme amylase breaking down the carbohydrate into its smaller glucose particles ready for further digestion and absorption.

Now think about how uncomfortable swallowing dry food is and this is where saliva helps by binding the food, enabling it to glide gently and without any damage to the oesophagus, into the stomach.

Of course, hand in hand with saliva comes chewing and in our fast-paced and frenetic lives we often give chewing only a passing thought as we rush through our meals onto the next thing on our to-do list!  Chewing is vital in mixing food with the saliva, ensuring that it is well coated and those enzymes can really get to work.  Chewing also initiates the release of gastric juices in the stomach, preparing it for the arrival of food and allowing the important process of fat and protein digestion to begin.

There is a saying that “the stomach has no teeth” and this is a powerful image if you imagine large pieces of food in the stomach that the gastric juices are unable to break apart – a lost opportunity to make the most of the food you have eaten – there is little to be gained by preparing a healthy meal if you are going to pay no attention to chewing it and finish it in a couple of mouthfuls!

Chewing your food until it is nearly liquid, putting your knife and fork down between mouthfuls and paying attention to your meal will mean that your food arrives into the stomach fully prepared for the gastric juices to break away all of those valuable nutrients.

We’ve already talked about morning “dragon breath” and the role of saliva in keeping the bacteria in our mouth balanced but did you know that the mouth plays host to many colonies of different types of bacteria, viruses, and fungi?  With good oral hygiene and a balanced diet, this oral microbiome can live happily and healthily but in an unhealthy mouth they can have a real impact, not just on conditions such as gingivitis, gum disease and tooth decay but on many other health conditions such as heart disease, arthritis, and neurodegenerative disease.

We hope we have convinced you that keeping your mouth healthy really can keep your body health and to give your mouth the love it deserves and to summarise here are 5 tips for keeping it in great shape:

  1. The obvious first - twice daily brushing, flossing and regular visits to your dental surgery are essential for keeping your teeth and gums intact – teeth for proper chewing and gums to prevent tooth loss and to ensure that the microbes in your mouth stay in your mouth!

  2. Keep snacking in check – eating too often can disrupt the pH levels of the mouth allowing some of the less desirable microbes to proliferate.

  3. Stay hydrated - saliva is 99% water and has an important role to play in the digestive process as well as maintaining a healthy and balanced environment in the mouth so staying hydrated throughout the day will keep saliva flowing.

  4. Eat well and chew well – a balanced diet helps to maintain bacterial balance in the mouth and chewing all of that good stuff properly will ensure that the nutrients it contains will be properly digested and absorbed to reach the places that matter.

  5. Smoking is a risk factor for gum disease and those that smoke are 3 times more likely to lose all of their teeth*. If you are a smoker, please take advice about ways to quit – visit your GP, pharmacist or check out the free NHS Quit Smoking app.

*Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). Oral Health Surveillance Report.

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