Dr. C. Michael Willock, a noted holistic dentist in Chapel Hill, finds that “a significant majority of people who come to see me are dealing with dental issues that are self-inflicted and preventable.
“The most frequently occurring and treatable dental problem seen in adults today is gum disease, affecting up to 50 percent of the US adult population, ages 30-70, and 90 percent of adults older than 70. Gum disease is defined as a mouth teeming with bacteria that form a sticky, colorless plaque on the teeth. When teeth aren’t brushed routinely and properly, this plaque can eventually harden into tartar that can only be removed by professional cleaning.
“If plaque and tartar aren’t removed,” explains Dr. Willock, “they become more harmful causing bacterial inflammation of the gums called gingivitis. The first sign of it is red and swollen gums that bleed easily. Fortunately,” he notes, “with proper brushing and flossing this stage can be reversed without loss of bone or tissue.
“However, if gingivitis isn’t treated promptly, then gum disease moves to the second stage—periodontitis. The gums will start pulling away from the teeth and forming pockets that can fill with food and become infected, eventually breaking down connective tissue and bone that hold the teeth in place. If it’s not treated, the teeth become loose and eventually fall out.”
Dr. Willock notes that there are many warning signs of periodontal disease: gums that bleed easily and are red, swollen, or tender; persistent bad breath or bad taste in the mouth; gums that have pulled away from the teeth; changes in the way teeth fit together when biting; and changes in the fit of partial dentures.
“And it’s important to heed those warning signs,” he says. “Infections in the mouth aren’t confined to the mouth. They can cause major health problems in other organ systems in the body. Studies from the American Academy of Periodontology make clear that periodontal bacteria can enter the blood stream and travel to major organs and begin new infections. The consequences,” he adds, “may include the development of heart disease, the country’s number one cause of death; an increased risk of stroke; an increase in a woman’s risk of having a pre-term, low birth-weight baby; and a serious threat to people whose health is compromised by diabetes, respiratory disease, or osteoporosis.”
The link between periodontal disease and diabetes is well established, notes Dr. Willock. “Studies show that people with diabetes are more likely to have periodontal disease because diabetics are more susceptible to contracting infections. Patients with poorly controlled type 2 diabetes are more likely to develop periodontal disease than are well-controlled diabetics.
“And the problems flow both ways. People with periodontal disease who have diabetes find it more difficult to control their blood sugar. It’s really important that diabetics who have periodontal disease be treated to eliminate it.”
Studies associate obesity with increased oral health problems as well, he notes. “Obese patients have a tendency towards more tooth decay and missing teeth. Problems are increased with use of prescription drugs which can cause extreme dry mouth. Poor diet, excessive heartburn, and possibility of increased vomiting all lead to dental problems.
“The UNC Oral Health Institute, in Chapel Hill, did a study linking periodontal disease and obesity. This study indicates that obese patients have a higher prevalence of periodontal disease due to what researchers call ‘chronic nutritional stress.’ They have identified bacteria called MicroRNA that is much more prevalent in patients with a high body mass.
Smoking and Drug Abuse
“Smoking is a terrible assault on the whole body—including oral health,” notes Dr. Willock. “Oral health problems are manifold for the smoker, ranging from bad breath and stains on the teeth to an increased risk of oral cancer—which of course can be lethal. More than 40,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer in the US each year, resulting in about 8,000 deaths. And there are other oral health issues. Smoking impairs healing after dental procedures, and it increases the risk of gum disease. Some experts believe that smoking is a major cause of tooth loss in adults because it restricts blood flow to the tissues surrounding the teeth. It is also directly linked to receding gums.”
Recreational drug use comes with a whole array of dental problems of its own, observes Dr. Willock. “Club drugs, such as speed and ecstasy, cause severe tooth decay, dry mouth, and induce jaw clenching and teeth grinding. Heroin increases cravings for sugary foods and drinks and cocaine causes grinding of the teeth to the point of the enamel wearing away, as well as serious tooth decay and tooth erosion.”
He adds, “The saddest sight is seeing a patient who has been abusing methamphetamine. That drug is probably the most destructive to oral health that I’ve ever witnessed. The first course of action is to extract all the teeth that are beyond repair. The remaining teeth can be saved by either a filling or crown, inlay or onlay. But the first thing to do is get the bad ones out quickly and initiate healing. The worst-case scenario is meth mouth—it’s nasty. Imagine about 28 or 32 rotten stumps all the way around the top and bottom of the mouth. Our recommendation is to pull out all the dead teeth and let the mouth heal. Then we can always make a denture. But that’s probably going to be the best scenario they’re ever going to have.
“So many of our health issues are self-induced. People need to realize that the key to prevention is proper oral hygiene, a balanced and healthy diet, and routine dental visits. When something feels out of sync, make sure you take the time to go to a health care professional to be evaluated. And most importantly, stay away from tobacco and recreational drugs. They can seriously impact oral health, as well as the health of the entire body.”