Did you know that at any given time, there are around 8 billion bacteria living inside your mouth? Dividing into more than 700 species of bacteria, many more being discovered and catalogued every day, these little creatures are your body’s way of outsourcing labor to a contractor that doesn’t need to be paid. Bacteria are responsible for a host of different activities inside your mouth. Some help your body to break down certain fats before they hit the stomach. Others fight off other bacteria that enter the mouth from different sources, and still others are involved in processes we may never figure out.
While most of these guys help to regulate each other, sometimes the balance is thrown into disarray as the result of an imbalanced diet, poor oral hygiene, or other factors. When this occurs, it can lead to gum disease and tooth decay.
What Is Gum Disease?
There’s a good chance you’ve heard of gum disease (periodontal disease), and an even better chance you have it at this very moment. According to a study conducted by the CDC, nearly half the American population over thirty has gum disease — the number climbs to 70 percent when you’re over seventy. But what exactly is gum disease, how do you get it, and what are the symptoms?
At its most basic, gum disease is a bacterial infection which causes your periodontal tissue, your gums, to become inflamed due to an immune response. Gingivitis is the beginning stages, and the symptoms include red, “puffy-looking” gums, bleeding while brushing or flossing, and gum sensitivity. If left untreated, gingivitis turns into full-blown periodontal disease, and can cause your gums to recede, teeth to become loose, and even complete tooth loss.
The cause of gum disease is essentially the bacteria that are already present in your mouth. In general, all those species of bacteria are good at regulating one another. Each of them is trying to be the best and this competition breeds, in a way, equality. This equality is broken, however, when certain species get an unfair advantage. Streptococcus mutans, a species of bacteria known for digesting simple carbs and sugar, will generally get this advantage when your diet is high in sugar, and your oral hygiene is poor. They use this extra food to create what is known as biofilm — plaque that clings to teeth and protects them from saliva and other obstacles — and mass produce, throwing bacterial populations into disarray. S. mutans produces acids that damage your teeth causing cavities, and damaging your gums.
Other bacteria like to infect the area between your teeth and gums. They might feed on sugar or benefit from an acidic environment, but as they grow, they can damage your gums, bone, and teeth. As this infection worsens, the body’s immune response ramps up, and as a side effect this causes more damage to the area. Partly this is because the body is taking a “scorched earth” approach to try to remove the bacteria, but it can also be because some oral bacteria can corrupt your immune system and make it attack your body instead. (This is why gum disease has been linked to autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. The technique that some of these bacteria use to hide from your immune system can also hide cancer cells, which might be why gum disease is linked to cancer risk.)
How to Prevent Gum Disease
By far, the best way to prevent gum disease is by maintaining a rigorous oral hygiene routine. If gum disease is caused by misbehaving bacteria, then eliminating their food source (their edge over other bacteria) will help keep them in check. The American Dental Association suggests brushing your teeth twice a day, once when you go to bed and once in the morning, and flossing once a day, taking special precaution to periodically dip between the gum line with floss.
Another way to prevent gum disease is by visiting your dentist once every six months for a checkup and cleaning. This will help you to stay abreast of your own oral health, and if intervention is needed, you can receive treatment before the problem gets out of control.