Our mouth’s environment has many microscopic players, and it pays to keep it in balance as best we can. Our body already has to cope with the stresses of a modern diet that’s different than what human bodies have evolved to accommodate over the eons. Our diet imparts an increased likelihood for a bacterial population explosion, so we should try to avoid additional stressors that exacerbate the situation. Sometimes it’s the additional stresses on our body’s defenses that can make the difference.
To use an analogy, it’s like two people trying to cultivate vegetable gardens in their respective back yards. The environment of the neighborhood exposes both to local weeds and insects. Both gardeners may pull weeds from their gardens when they get too numerous. Yet the gardener who makes compost, mulches and waters the plants ends up with vegetables; the gardener who neglects those things ends up with weak plants devoured by insects and quickly overtaken by weeds. It may be the insects and weeds that spoiled the garden, but it was the other factors that made it easier for them to get the upper hand.
When it comes to gum health, there are also other factors besides the bacteria themselves that increase the likelihood of gum disease and of how quickly and how severely the disease will spread. Perhaps the strongest environmental factor is smoking. It is so significant and there’s so much research about it that we’ve devoted a section of our website just to summarize the effects of smoking on gum health.
Another factor affecting healthy gums, poor nutrition, affects the body’s overall ability to generate immune system resources, such as phagocytes and lymphocytes. It also affects the localized area of the gums and the robustness of new cells that replenish dying cells. Lack of trace elements can affect a gum cell’s ability to control its ion equilibrium, which is necessary for its operation, growth and regeneration. These are important functions when fending off a bacterial attack. Poor nutrition that results in increased sugars and increased acidity in the mouth also provides the environment and the food supply for a bacterial population explosion.
A lack of Vitamin-C is directly associated with inflamed and bleeding gums. Much of the gum structure as well as the tooth-supporting periodontal ligaments are made up of connective tissue, and vitamin-C is needed to synthesize the main protein (collagen) of connective tissue. The connection between vitamin-C deficiency and weak and damaged gums has been famous since the days of wooden sailing ships centuries ago.
Illnesses occupy the immune system’s resources and the added burden of infected gums may be too much for the system to handle adequately. Therefore if you’re feeling sick, take especially good care of your gums. This is particularly important for serious chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cancer or AIDS; you don’t want gum problems to divert any immune system capabilities from your body’s critical efforts to optimize health in the face of serious challenges.
Chronic stress can detract from the immune system’s ability to fight off infection, including gum infection. Stress causes the adrenal glands to release the hormone cortisol, which prepares the body for stress by increasing blood pressure and blood sugar and by suppressing the immune system, in order to maximize the amount of energy available for fight or flight. A short term increase in cortisol also makes extra calcium available and can temporarily increase bone metabolism. But chronically high levels of cortisol can lead to bone loss, which tends to show up first in the jaw bone. In women, chronically high cortisol can prevent ovulation which leads to decreased estrogen and can increase the rate on bone resorption (bone cell breakdown). In either case the tooth-supporting alveolar bones underneath can become weaker just at a time when a gum infection starts making inroads from the surface of the gums.
Medications may have side effects that seem innocuous but that affect the body’s efficiency in keeping gums healthy. Something as simple as reducing the flow of saliva could then allow for a higher acid environment in the mouth which allows increased bacterial growth and plaque production. In these situations it’s especially important to care for your gums in a way that improves the pH of the mouth.
In women, hormonal changes such as the monthly period, some birth control pills, pregnancy and menopause can lead to gums that are more sensitive and more receptive to incursions by plaque bacteria. (See the links below for more information about these topics.) Even though it’s tempting to let gum care slide when not feeling your best, taking control of your gum health at these times of sensitive gums can prevent larger problems.
A habit of clenching, clacking or grinding teeth can also make it easier for gum diseases to start. The excessive force exerted on the connective tissues that support the teeth can speed up the rate at which these types of cells are used up (resorption), beyond the rate of creation of new cells (remodeling). If you wake up in the morning with soreness in localized parts of your mouth, you may be clenching your teeth in your sleep. Wearing a night guard on the teeth can help reduce the pressure and can also discourage clenching. Your dental professional can advise you on this.
Habitual breathing through the mouth, rather than the nose, can dry out the saliva in the mouth, and can have the same effect as if your body were producing less saliva (as discussed in the paragraph above on medications). Habitual mouth-breathing has been associated with increased chances of having gum disease.
In summary, there are multiple factors affecting healthy gums, some can be controlled more than others, so make it your responsibility to take as much control as you can over your own gum health.