by Mable Buchanan

A healthy mouth is a healthy body.

Dentists know this mantra well. They also know that they will share it often and with the widest audience possible if it means that more people will actually heed the call.

After all, patients’ oral health contains several helpful indicators for the health of the rest of their bodies.

An unhealthy diet, for example, sometimes translates into excessive plaque, tooth decay, or weakened enamel. Gum inflammation, though it is not a cause, might be a signal of heart disease, artery blockage, or stroke. Periodontal disease may also be connected with heart disease and stroke, because the same bacteria found in dental plaque can also be found in the vessels of the heart.

“The mouth is definitely a window into the health of the body,” explains Dr. David Hasson, of Mount Airy Children’s Dental, which is why he focuses on preventive care to ensure children are able to develop healthy habits and escape potential problems.

“Your teeth can show excessive wear due to eating foods or drinking liquids high in acidity,” Dr. Hasson explains. “Anything with carbohydrates is metabolized by the bacteria in plaque into acid, and that acid is what weakens enamel, causing white spots at first, then it progresses into decay and cavitation. If your teeth are exceptionally healthy, that shows that your diet is probably pretty good, too! As a pediatric dentist, I see it every day in my practice.”

“Several diseases that affect the entire body, like diabetes, are sometimes first recognized by oral problems like mouth sores,” Hasson adds. “And diseases like diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and blood cell disorders, in making the body more susceptible to infections, can exacerbate periodontal disease, affecting oral health.”

“If you notice changes in your gums or teeth,” Hasson explains, “it can be too late to prevent the disease from advancing to more serious forms.”

Dr. Gary Imm, of All Smiles Dental, echoes Hasson’s advice.

“The mouth is what’s called a monitor for your body,” he explains, adding that in Eastern Medicine, the rapid regeneration rate of mouth cells leads different areas of the tongue to represent the health of various parts of the body—kind of like how reflexology works in the feet.

“If you look carefully, you can tell by the color, by how smooth it is, by sores in certain places, by swelling and things like that, the health in the rest of the body,” he says. In traditional Western medicine as well, he notes, the ability not to diagnose but to encourage a patient to seek diagnosis for a condition like diabetes is valuable, especially when a patient who is taking care of their mouth is not getting the benefits they should be.

It is easy for busy adults and children to miss the connection between dental care and oral hygiene as part of a comprehensive approach to their overall health, both dentists note.

Dr. Imm suggests that the connections between oral and overall health are sometimes underestimated. “It would be like saying the pipes in your upstairs powder room aren’t the same as the pipes in the rest of your house. They’re all connected… Gums are like the seal that keeps bacteria from getting to the bone and affecting the bone. The biggest part is controlling the environment in the mouth by not putting things there that will hurt you by making it more acidic or toxic, and keeping bacteria off so it can’t cause any destruction.”

However, the effects of nutrition on oral health aren’t limited to the food that you eat. Water intake, and the lack of it, can also be reflected in your mouth.

Dehydration, while not usually associated with oral health, can affect the production of saliva, which is integral to the neutralization of acid conditions accompanying plaque formation, and especially in the cases of chronic dry mouth caused by disease or aging, it can eventually lead to conditions conducive to dental decay.

Dr. Imm compares the effect of dehydration on the mouth to its effects on the life of a plant.

“You’ll have less blood flow because of the lesser volume of blood, though it will take longer,” he explains. “If you don’t drink enough today, you won’t see damage from that right away, but it makes the tissues more fragile… Think of a plant: if it’s in a drought situation and not getting the fluids that it needs to live properly, it’s more susceptible to disease and breakage.”

Disease, underlying conditions, hygiene, past experiences or dental trauma, diet, hydration, and even changing stress levels, can be reflected in an individual’s mouth.

While it is highly unlikely that dental self-portraits will be the next craze to hit Instagram, or that your dentist is inspecting your enamel in preparation for a Sherlock Holmesian recitation of your every move in the previous week, oral indicators can be extremely useful.

They not only help dentists recognize issues that have already begun to manifest themselves, but they will also engender advice about responsible, preventive care.

When people follow recommendations like brush for two minutes twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, floss daily, have a good diet, see a dentist regularly, protect your child’s teeth with a dental sealant and, in general, be healthy, not only will they reap the social benefits of better breath, a more confident smile, and better communication—they are also mapping out a routine that will help their teeth last a lifetime, both dentists note.

If people don’t follow the advice, their mouths will tell all.

On the Clock: According to Children’s Dental Village, the average person only brushes for 45 to 70 seconds daily, while the recommended time is two to three minutes.

First Impressions: According to Munroe Falls Family Dentistry, 50% of people surveyed say that someone’s smile is the first detail about them that they notice.

Misery Loves Company: According to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, eighty percent of people in the United States have some form of periodontal disease.

Sweet and Sour: According to Children’s Dental Village, those who drink 3+ glasses of soda daily have 62% more tooth decay than those who don’t.

Tougher than Nails: According to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, your dental enamel, while containing some keratin, which is also found in nails and hair, also contains hydroxyapatite, which makes your dental enamel the hardest part of your body.

Cover All Bases: According to Munroe Falls Family Dentistry, without flossing, we would miss 35% of each tooth’s surface area while cleaning our teeth.

So Are the Days of Our Lives: According to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, the average adult spends 38 days of their life brushing their teeth.