Years ago, a physician who suspected heart disease would probably not refer the patient to a gum specialist. The same went for diabetes,pregnancy, or just about any other medical condition. Times have changed. The past 5 to 10 years have seen ballooning interest in possible links between mouth health and body health.Your Mouth, the Gateway to Your BodyTo understand how the mouth can affect the body, it helps to understand what can go wrong in the first place. Bacteria that builds up on teeth make gums prone to infection. The immune system moves in to attack the infection and the gums become inflamed. The inflammation continues unless the infection is brought under control.Over time, inflammation and the chemicals it releases eat away at the gums and bone structure that hold teeth in place. The result is severegum disease, known as periodontitis. Inflammation can also cause problems in the rest of the body.What's the connection between oral health and overall health?Like many areas of the body, your mouth is teeming with bacteria — most of them harmless. Normally the body's natural defenses and good oral health care, such as daily brushing and flossing, can keep these bacteria under control. However, without proper oral hygiene, bacteria can reach levels that might lead to oral infections, such as tooth decay and gum disease.In addition, certain medications — such as decongestants, antihistamines, painkillers and diuretics — can reduce saliva flow. Saliva washes away food and neutralizes acids produced by bacteria in the mouth, helping to protect you from microbial invasion or overgrowth that might lead to disease.Studies also suggest that oral bacteria and the inflammation associated with periodontitis — a severe form of gum disease — might play a role in some diseases. In addition, certain diseases, such as diabetes and HIV/AIDS, can lower the body's resistance to infection, making oral health problems more severe.Oral Health and DiabetesThe working relationship between diabetes and periodontitis may be the strongest of all the connections between the mouth and body. Inflammation that starts in the mouth seems to weaken the body’s ability to control blood sugar. People with diabetes have trouble processing sugar because of a lack of insulin, the hormone that converts sugar into energy.Diabetes reduces the body's resistance to infection — putting the gums at risk. Gum disease appears to be more frequent and severe among people who have diabetes. Research shows that people who have gum disease have a harder time controlling their blood sugar levels.Oral Health and Heart DiseaseThough the reasons are not fully understood, it’s clear that gum disease and heart disease often go hand in hand. Up to 91% of patients withheart disease have periodontitis, compared to 66% of people with noheart disease. The two conditions have several risk factors in common, such as smoking, unhealthy diet, and excess weight. And some suspect that periodontitis has a direct role in raising the risk for heart diseaseas well.Oral Health and PregnancyBabies born too early or at a low birth weight often have significant health problems, including lung conditions, heart conditions, and learning disorders. While many factors can contribute to premature or low birth weight deliveries, researchers are looking at the possible role of gum disease. Infection and inflammation in general seem to interfere with a fetus’ development in the womb.Though men have periodontitis more often than women do, hormonal changes during pregnancy can increase a woman’s risk. For the best chance of a healthy pregnancy.Oral Health and OsteoporosisOsteoporosis and periodontitis have an important thing in common,bone loss. The link between the two, however, is controversial. Cram points out that osteoporosis affects the long bones in the arms and legs, whereas gum disease attacks the jawbone. Others point to the fact that osteoporosis mainly affects women, whereas periodontitis is more common among men.Though a link has not been well established, some studies have found that women with osteoporosis have gum disease more often than those who do not. Researchers are testing the theory that inflammation triggered by periodontitis could weaken bone in other parts of the body.Oral Health and Other ConditionsThe impact of oral health on the body is a relatively new area of study. Some other mouth-body connections under current investigation include:Rheumatoid Arthritis. Treating periodontal disease has been shown to reduce pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis.Lung Conditions. Periodontal disease may make pneumonia andchronic obstructive pulmonary disease worse, possibly by increasing the amount of bacteria in the lungs.Obesity. Two studies have linked obesity to gum disease. It appears that periodontitis progresses more quickly in the presence of higher body fat.The Bottom Line on Oral HealthOne thing is clear: the body and mouth are not separate. "Your body can affect your mouth and likewise, your mouth can affect your body," says McClain. "Taking good care of your teeth and gums can really help you live well longer." This means brushing twice a day, flossing once a day, and going for regular dental cleanings and check-ups.