Open up: Your mouth can reveal a lot about your health.
Even if your teeth look white and pearly and have no cavities, symptoms in your mouth could spell trouble for other areas of your health. “If your eyes are a window into your soul, your mouth is a gateway into your health,” said Dr. Sanda Moldovan, a Beverly Hills periodontist.
“The way I treat patients who come to me, I connect the mouth with the rest of the body because I do believe we’re a unit, and we’re no longer separating the two,” Moldovan said.
It seems what’s going on below can directly impact the teeth, the gums and the mouth, so never ignore an oral problem.
Here are some things your mouth can reveal about your health:
• Bleeding gums can be a symptom of hormonal imbalance: Hormone receptors are embedded in your gum tissue. During pregnancy women may experience bleeding gums, not because of a problem with a tooth but because their hormones have gone a little haywire. Ditto for menopause. Women also have more sensitive gums during their menstrual cycles, so you might avoid a trip to the dentist during your period.
• Cracked, crumbling teeth can be a symptom of gastroesphogeal reflux disease, or GERD. A lot of times people think their teeth are wearing down because they grind them. But when dentists observe teeth that melt away and have a lot of cracks, it’s often from stomach acid emitted during sleep. GERD is when stomach acids come up through the esophagus into the mouth. “The hard structures of teeth are being bathed in acid and low pH and that is actually eroding the enamel off the teeth,” said Dr. Jeanette Kern, who practices general dentistry in Monterey, Calif. These teeth have a very specific look — it’s like when you go to the seashore and see rocks smoothed out by wear. People who grind have more flattened and sharp regions. See a gastroenterologist at the first sign of GERD.
• Bad breath can be a symptom of stomach issues. If you’re brushing and flossing regularly and have good dental checkups, bad breath can be related to stomach issues. “A small bacterial overgrowth in a patient’s stomach can show up as bad breath and not be associated at all with teeth,” said Moldovan. It may be an indication of a liver or kidney problem. Even diabetics can have breath that smells musty like fermentation, and that means their diabetes is not under control and they should see a physician.
• Flat, worn teeth and headaches can be a symptom of stress: Flat worn teeth or morning headaches spell teeth grinding. If you sleep solo, bruxism can go unnoticed. Morning headaches and jaw pain are other telltale signs. “Worn teeth are just the beginning — grinding affects the entire masticatory apparatus — from the bones that surround the teeth to the muscles that move the jaw,” said Dr. Bryon Viechnicki, an orthodontist in Bethlehem, Pa. Teeth can develop stress fractures and grinders can have muscle pain and headaches that feel sinus-related. “In many men, bruxism is a real pain in the neck — the cervical muscles can be affected,” said Viechnicki. Migraines are more common in women. To protect yourself, a custom mouth guard can be made by your dentist.
• Canker sores can be a symptom of gluten intolerance or a mineral deficiency such as zinc. “Normally if I see someone with canker sores, I will give them a zinc supplement and if they still have them, I would send them to the gastro doc to check out their gluten intolerance, for possible celiac disease,” said Moldovan. Celiac disease is an inherited, immune system disorder in which the proteins found in wheat, rye and barley cause damage to the lining of the small intestine. A recent study found that participants who ate a gluten-free diet healed their canker sores.
• Gum disease and inflammation can be a symptom of heart problems. “We know that the type of the bacteria in the mouth can be transferred down into our blood vessels and cause plaque, and that plaque has a type of bacteria that lives in the mouth,” said Kern. Even if you only have mild periodontal disease (gum inflammation) around one tooth, it’s in your bloodstream, so your body is working on it all the time. “I think it’s a combination that it is wearing down your immune system and that type of bacteria in the plumbing of the blood vessel can cause coronary problems,” Kern explains. When you have gum disease taken care of with a deep cleaning in the dentist office, it lowers the inflammatory process and helps the entire body. “So you may think you are cleaning up your mouth, but you’re possibly saving your life when you take care of your periodontal disease,” Kern said.