Growing up my entire life with a mom who is also a hardcore dental hygienist has engrained healthy dental habits since I think I could formulate memories in my brain. I recall the very thorough tooth brushing routine from a young age to even getting caught at age 8 with a pack of non-sugarless gum stashed under my bed (and the fear of God I had once I knew I could never outsmart my mom with sneaking sugary snacks and candies in our home). While this may have cramped my sweet-tooth sugar addiction that I inherited from my dad, I am thankful that I was raised with such stringent and careful dental care, as I can still boast being cavity-free at age 33.
As parents, we strive to do everything right for our kids – feed them healthy, bathe them, keep them safe, raise them with morals and love, etc. Something else to add to the list (regardless of our own state of dental affairs) is aiming to keep our kids’ teeth and mouths as healthy as possible, too, for the link to dental health and overall health is astonishing. My mom would tell me how if we let dangerous bacteria grow in our mouths, it can actually lead to heart problems and rampant infections throughout the body… and I finally really made the whole connection once I went back to school to study holistic health and nutrition. It is shocking to know how many body systems are connected to and affected by our dental health. For new parents out there, ensuring good dental health practices starts before babies even get teeth; for those of us with young kids, now is the time to start making sure we pay even closer attention to the many ways we can support optimal dental health; and as adults, it’s time we take a look at our own habits to make sure we are taking care of ourselves and setting a good example for our little ones (even if you just hate going to the dentist).
Think about it – many things happen in the mouth: the start of digestion, the introduction of many pathogens, speech, some breathing…. So it’s important to keep this area of the body clean and healthy so it can optimally function. Did you know that dental disease is one of the leading causes of childhood health ailments? According to the Pennsylvania Dental Association:
“ Tooth decay affects more than one quarter of children ages two to five, half of those ages 12 to 15 and countless adults in the United States. In fact, tooth decay is the most common chronic disease in children; five times more common than asthma and seven times more common than hay fever. The good news is that tooth decay is preventable. “
Lots of bacteria naturally exist in our mouths – this is how digestion begins. Enzymes and bacteria help to start break down food chemically. However, if the wrong foods are eaten, like sugar or refined carbohydrate foods that break down into sugar, the sugar acts as a feeding frenzy for bacteria ON the teeth, which eventually leads to inflammation and the decay or breakdown of healthy enamel, which protects the teeth and keeps them strong. Additionally, this bacteria builds up over time, causing bad breath and leads to infection, which then takes away important infection-fighting cells from other parts of the body where they are needed to combat a problem area that is easily avoidable. As the immune system kicks into high gear to attack the bacteria and infection in the mouth, this leads to prolonged inflammation, which as I’ve stated before, is never healthy for the body. Over time, this inflammation and the chemicals it releases eat away at the gums and bone structure that hold teeth in place, which eventually results in moderate to severe gum disease, known as gingivitis (moderate) and periodontitis (severe). While this is more commonly known as an adult dental issue, it is becoming more and more common in children, most likely due to the increase in sugary foods and drinks (and overall lack of a healthy diet). As parents, we need to be extra concerned about this, as this chronic inflammation in the mouth linked to poor dental health can also cause problems in the rest of the body such as:
- Heart problems
- Chronic infections
- Digestive issues
- Halitosis (bad breath)
- An imbalance in body pH and chemistry
- Hormone disturbance
- Interference with sugar regulation and metabolism
THE DIABETES CONNECTION: According to Pamela McClain, DDS, President of the American Academy of Periodontology, the 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. “Periodontal disease further complicates diabetes because the inflammation impairs the body’s ability to utilize insulin,” Dr. McClain says. To further complicate matters, diabetes and periodontitis have a two-way relationship. High blood sugar provides ideal conditions for infection to grow, including gum infections. Fortunately you can use the gum disease-diabetes relationship to your favor: managing one can help bring the other under control.
THE HEART-HEALTH CONNECTION: Dr. Sally Cram, DDS notes that while 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 with heart disease have periodontitis, compared to 66% of people with no heart disease. The two conditions have several risk factors in common, such as smoking (in teens and adults), unhealthy diet, and excess weight. This is important to get a grasp on from an early age, as any form of heart disease prevention is key. “The theory is that inflammation in the mouth causes inflammation in the blood vessels,” says Dr. Cram. This can increase the risk for heart attack in a number of ways: inflamed blood vessels allow less blood to travel between the heart and the rest of the body, raising blood pressure. “There’s also a greater risk that fatty plaque will break off the wall of a blood vessel and travel to the heart or the brain, causing a heart attack or stroke,” Cram explains.
OVERALL HEALTH: It’s a known fact that infections stemming in the mouth (either due to decay or gum disease) can quickly spread to other areas of the body. In children, this can deteriorate their health even faster, as their bodies are more susceptible to illness and their organs and bodies are still developing. Some scientific research has even noted that poor dental health can affect brain function, behavior/mood, and overall development. If the body is too busy trying to constantly fight off a baseline infection or bacterial invasion, it does not have enough resources to focus on what it needs to. Why subject our children to that?
A GREAT SUMMARY BY KIDSORALHEALTH.COM: Dental disease is the most common chronic disease of early childhood. Cavities and decay in baby teeth can also spread to permanent teeth, causing painful and costly damage. But you can prevent this! Regular preventive care and a healthy diet can help prevent decay.
Healthy baby teeth:
- Allow your child to chew and eat properly.
- Help your child speak clearly.
- Shape your baby’s face.
- Guide adult teeth into place.
Dental decay in baby teeth affects your child’s overall health:
- Cavities can be painful.
- Cavities can interfere with your child’s ability to eat well.
- Dental disease can affect your child’s overall health and development.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Earliest prevention is key. Starting before babies get their teeth is best, but starting at any stage is better than not doing anything at all.
- Start cleaning baby’s gums before teeth come in. You can do this with a wet and clean washcloth (preferably not washed with detergents that are full of dyes, perfumes, and other chemicals) or an infant toothbrush that has soft, rubbery bristles (babies may even like to gnaw on this by themselves!). You can do so using just plain water or a fluoride free toothpaste because in all honesty, through my research, babies and young children should not be ingesting fluoride and don’t know how to spit toothpaste out effectively enough at this age (I highly recommend Weleda brand…and about the fluoride issue…I’m not condemning fluoride altogether… I just don’t think young babies and children should be ingesting it; this is different than using preventative treatments at an appropriate age.). This action brushes away bacteria that can build up on gums that can eventually lead to a gum infection or a breeding ground of bacteria for teeth coming in, which can even delay teeth coming in and/or make it very painful for babies.
- Once teeth come in, brush at least twice a day. Yes, twice. (I know some of you are probably thinking, “I can barely get the toothbrush in my kid’s mouth once a day… no or less twice!”) While I know this may not be the easiest feat for all children, like anything else, repetition and consistency builds understanding and will lead to an easier time doing so. I brush my son’s teeth either right when he gets up/after he eats breakfast and definitely before bed. I even make sure to brush his teeth after he’s had milk or anything with natural sugar (like fruit or any food that can get lodged in his teeth) before a nap, as I do not want any food sitting in his teeth and mouth while sleeping. Yes, there are definitely days when he is more cooperative… and days when I can barely get the toothbrush in his mouth. However, if I don’t even try, that’s a missed opportunity…and it teaches him that he can win with his behavior, which is not something you want to allow early on. Here are some tips to make teeth brushing time more productive and less like a scene from Braveheart:
- Make it a game – have your child use your toothbrush and have them brush your teeth while you brush his/hers. It’s amazing how engaged kids can get when they feel like they are part of the action. Besides, it helps them build the skill to do for themselves when they get older.
- Aim for brushing at least two minutes each time. To help your child brush for the correct amount of time, try setting an egg timer or listening to a song.
- You can even make up a tooth-brushing dance. C’mon… you know you have the disco skills.
- If that fails, you can try a cool-looking toothbrush or find a toy your child can play with to distract him/her while you brush.
- It is important to brush all tooth surfaces, including the gums, backs of teeth and even the tongue.
- Be aware that many medications can cause dental issues. Medications such as decongestants, antihistamines, painkillers and diuretics (not like you’d be giving these to your young kids anyway…but as they get older) — 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.
- One of the BIGGEST offenders is children’s Tylenol or ibuprofen – these formulas are LOADED with sugar (to disguise the taste)…and are often given MOST when children are TEETHING. You give this to your child when teething à you may not brush afterward thinking it will hurt teething teeth à a sugary mess is coated and left on the gums and teeth….need I type further? Two ways around this: be sure to brush after administering these meds if given OR you can actually use non-child formula in low dose (you will have to check with your pediatrician first to correlate dosage [it will be in line with what children’s versions are] and break up the pills to create the dose…crush the pill and add to a yogurt/fruit mix or any other food to disguise the taste. Again, check with your pediatrician first to make sure dosing is done properly.
- Once two teeth come in next to each other, you should begin flossing. That’s right. Flossing baby teeth. Bacteria LOVES to hang out and build up between teeth, so teaching flossing early will promote this practice to be carried over into childhood, teenage years, and adult dental health care. There are many cool “flosser” products out there to make flossing easier and cooler in those tiny mouths. You can ask your dentist for suggestions, too. Flossing helps remove pieces of food that get stuck between teeth and under gums, reaching places the toothbrush can’t.
- One of the greatest ways to help dental health – eat a healthy diet and limit between-meal snacks. Limiting sugar is KEY. Like I have mentioned before in my article on carbs/sugar… you need to READ LABELS and really check to see how much sugar is in the food you are feeding your family. Shockingly, many “healthy snacks” have sugar contents in the amounts of 12-15g per serving…which in my opinion, is HUGE! Snacks like flavored yogurts, “fruit snacks”, milks, ice cream, ice pops, etc. are LOADED with sugar… to the tune of over 20g in some cases. Um, that is how much added sugars max your child should be getting a day. Now think about what all of that sugar is doing on the surfaces of the teeth. Awesome. Rather, load your food arsenal up with cut up fruits and veggies (yes, fruit has sugar, but natural sugar, not refined sugar), lots of fiber, and omegas! High amounts of omegas help dental health in that they reduce inflammation and allow your body to break sugars down better. Offer a variety of foods from the five major food groups: fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains and meat/poultry/fish. Avoid sugary beverages, such as soda, juice and sports drinks, and snacks that contain high amounts of sugar. Each time you eat or drink something with sugar, harmful acids attack your teeth for at least 20 minutes. Repeat attacks can lead to tooth decay.
- Never put your baby or child to sleep with a bottle of milk, juice, or any other drink that contains sugar. If your child needs fluids in bed, make it water. The sugars will pool in the mouth and decay teeth like crazy. Believe it or not, but milk has a decent amount of sugar in it (naturally….but in some cases…ADDED with some brands…blech….READ LABELS!).
- Children should not eat or suck on high-acid containing fruits or foods like lemons – while it may be cute to catch the puckered-face picture of a baby’s first taste of a lemon, the acids in these foods break down the enamel coating on teeth, making them more susceptible to decay. Foods like citrus fruits and pineapple have higher acid amounts; just be careful and maybe offer these foods when children are older and have more developed enamel on their teeth (or brush teeth afterward to prevent the acid from eating away at teeth).
- Replace toothbrushes every three to four months or sooner if bristles are frayed. Be sure to wash toothbrushes off with hot water after each use and store in a place where they are not exposed to lots of germs.
- Schedule regular dental checkups. Ideally, a baby’s first birthday (or when they get teeth) is recommended for a first dental visit, but for many individuals, by the time children are two is a great time to have teeth examined. Besides, the earlier children are brought, the more comfortable they will be in the future (hopefully). While this may be hard for some families that do not have dental insurance, check with your dentist to see if they can offer a payment plan that will work. Taking care of your oral health is one of the best investments in your overall health.
- Many dentists recommend the application of sealants on children’s teeth to help prevent cavities. Dr. Galeone, DDS notes, “The application of fissure sealants to the teeth can help prevent dental decay. A fissure sealant is a clear or shaded plastic material applied to the pits and grooves of children’s teeth. They are especially recommended for those children with a history of tooth decay.” Some critics say sealants can expose children to BPA levels… but in my personal opinion, I would rather protect against cavities that way than deal with tooth decay and potentially using amalgam fillings, which leach incredible amounts of mercury into the human body for the entire time they are present in the mouth (which for most people, is the rest of their lives).
Here’s to bright, healthy smiles for EVERYONE in your family. I can personally attest that learning healthy oral hygiene habits from an early age helped me obtain optimal dental health, which impacts every other system in your body. Besides, who wants to sit in the dentist chair having fillings? Help your child onto this healthy dental path as soon as possible.
Megan Monday articles are written by Megan Kalocinski, a Certified Holistic Health and Nutrition Coach and Owner/Founder of Empower Health & Nutrition Coaching of Exponential Health and Wellness, LLC: http://www.exponentialhealthandwellness.us