Maintaining good oral health and seeing a dentist regularly can reduce the risk of developing or exacerbating diabetes

You know that things like diet and exercise can impact your health, but did you know that what happens in your mouth can also have a significant effect on your whole body, including your risk of developing or exacerbating conditions like diabetes?

Diabetes is quickly becoming one of the largest health crises in America. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), 29.1 million Americans had diabetes in 2012, nearly 10 percent of the population. Additionally, the ADA estimates that there are 86 million Americans with pre-diabetes. The annual cost of this disease is also staggering—$245 billion per year in 2012, a 41 percent increase over just a five-year span. About $176 million of that is attributed to direct medical costs, with another $69 million in reduced productivity.

Diabetes & Oral Health – A Two-Way Street

Diabetes is a chronic condition, requiring patients to maintain discipline and strict self-management to prevent complications. Care providers often prescribe diet and exercise changes that can help a patient manage diabetes, and now many are also adding proper oral health care to that list as well.

Many researchers have examined whether a lack of good oral health care puts a person at higher risk for developing diabetes, or whether having diabetes contributes to poor oral health. As it turns out, it goes both ways—individuals with diabetes are more prone to develop periodontal disease, and the existence of periodontal disease can also cause problems in managing diabetes.

The Role of Inflammation

Inflammation is our body’s natural response to harmful pathogens or outside stimuli. When our body senses something harmful, it summons our vascular and immune system to the area, releasing toxins through the blood to remove the harmful pathogens, which allows the body to begin healing. This is known as acute inflammation.

When inflammation persists over a long period of time it is called chronic inflammation. The cells sent to fight inflammation are powerful defenders of the body, but they also release toxins (commonly referred to as cytokines) that can accumulate and become harmful to the body. Research has shown that high levels of these toxins reduce the body’s response to insulin and increase the risk of developing diabetes. Periodontal disease is a chronic inflammatory disease, and the most common form is gingivitis. In fact, as much as 50 percent of the U.S. population suffers from gum disease and, like any inflammatory condition, this causes an increase in cytokines, which is linked to insulin resistance and other risk factors for diabetes and coronary heart disease.

For patients who already have diabetes, periodontal diseases make it harder for the body to maintain metabolic control, which increases the risk of complications, according to research studies.

Mitigating Risk with Proper Oral Care

Poor oral health makes it more difficult to control glucose levels, which can lead to major complications for people with diabetes. Diseases like gingivitis can cause dry mouth and decreased salivary flow, creating favorable conditions for bacteria. The existence of bacteria results in periodontal disease, and the cycle of inflammation and the body’s response ensues, along with all its harmful effects.

But there are ways to mitigate the risk of chronic inflammation. One of the best ways is to visit your dentist regularly.

“If you visit the same dentist regularly at the recommended six-month intervals, he or she can identify subtle changes that may indicate a potential problem,” said Dr. Kenneth King, Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs and Patient Care at Roseman University College of Dental Medicine in South Jordan, Utah.

“Things like gingivitis, recession of the gums, tender tissues, bone loss, calculus build-up, and increased number of cavities can all be indicators of a larger systemic problem,” said King. But since the changes are subtle, a dentist may have a difficult time diagnosing it for someone who comes infrequently for check-ups, or someone who gets a new dentist every couple of years. “Seeing the same dentist at regular intervals over a number of years is ideal, so he or she knows your history and can identify the more subtle indicators.”

If you already have diabetes, seeing a dentist regularly is equally important. A study by Drs. David Mosen, Daniel Pihlstrom and John Snyder published in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association showed that receipt of regular dental care reduces diabetes-specific medical care utilization. Specifically, study participants (all of whom had diabetes) who saw a dentist at least twice a year over a three-year period had better glycemic control, or the ability to keep blood sugar at a safe level. Regular-dental-care patients were also less likely to have diabetes-related hospital and emergency department admissions.

As with any condition, it is important to meet regularly with your healthcare provider to ensure that you are doing what you can to manage the disease. In the case of diabetes, be sure to schedule regular dental visits as well. Your mouth, and your body, will thank you.