oral health and immune system, cartoon in cape fighting off germsIn the last few months the topic of personal health and our immune systems have been in the spotlight like never before. Most of us were very quick to adopt the recommended guidelines around regular hand hygiene, distancing, coughing or sneezing into our elbows and isolating if we felt unwell. As a mother of three and personally having a compromised immune system, certainly one of my immediate concerns was how to keep myself and my family as healthy as possible when the coronavirus was spreading in our communities. And I clearly wasn’t alone: five days before the 25th March lockdown period began, a visit to a large West Auckland pharmacy to stock up on vitamins revealed empty shelves where the vitamin C and cold remedies should have been, and a queue for the check-outs that was at least four aisles deep. Around early April I attempted an online order but again the vitamin C was universally sold out.

I know the benefits of vitamins are regarded as a myth by many people, but at the time it seemed like an easy thing to do which certainly wouldn’t hurt even if it didn’t help. I have to admit that as my bubble settled into the many days at home, reminding my children to brush their teeth wasn’t always on my radar. After all, there was the much bigger threat of coronavirus to worry about. However, when I came across an article which explained that oral health is actually an important part of our general health, some well-timed alarm (and guilt) bells rang.

Most of us have a vague knowledge that our immune system is our body’s complex system of fighting off infections, germs, allergens and so on. And we understand that keeping yourself healthy gives your immune system the best chance of fighting off viruses and bacteria quickly. But it’s not as widely known that your mouth is a major contributor to your immunity and overall health.

A good step towards strengthening your immune system is to start taking good care of your teeth and gums. Many doctors consider your mouth to be a window to your overall health. It is the gateway to your digestive and respiratory tracts, which is why your oral health is so strongly connected to your overall immune system.

If you drop the ball when it comes to regular brushing and flossing it can lead to tooth decay and gum disease. Inflammation in your gums caused by gum disease can cause infections which affect your entire body. And don’t be tempted to indulge in sugary treats or acidic drinks too often, as they will lead to higher levels of bacteria growth in your mouth. Bacteria causes a raft of issues including increased plaque, decay and infections. Worryingly, it’s also quite common for chronically infected teeth or infected gums to not cause any pain – so assuming that your mouth is healthy because it doesn’t hurt can be a bad idea.

If you have a weakened immune system, even recovering from a common head cold, it’s possible for oral bacteria to cause you to develop an infection in another part of your body. And putting aside COVID-19 for a minute, poor oral health has been found to negatively impact on many serious conditions including heart disease, diabetes, pneumonia, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Maintaining good oral health can lead to good overall health, freeing up your immune system to fight off germs when it really needs to. And let’s not forget the added benefits of having a smile you can be proud of and fresh breath! Swapping the vitamin C for a tooth brush and floss may take a few extra minutes each day but there is clear and overwhelming evidence about the benefits to your general health.

J.R. is an Auckland resident and mother of three.