The dentist may not be your favorite appointment, but it's a necessity.
Good oral hygiene saves you from more than just tooth decay, cavities and bad breath. It is critically important because it can help prevent certain medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.
And here's something else: The state of your teeth, mouth and gums can clue your dentist into other medical issues you may need to address. By examining your mouth, your dentist can identify eating disorders, sleeping problems, anxiety, stress and more.
Below are some of the things dentists can see about your overall wellness just by looking your mouth:
Your teeth could be a clue to any distress you might be feeling. Stress, anxiety or a sleep disorder can cause teeth grinding. Bruxism, the medical term for teeth grinding, is significantly more frequent in people with obstructive sleep apnea, according to research.
"The surfaces of the teeth become flat and the teeth get worn down," Charles Rankin, DDS and professor at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, told HuffPost, noting that a healthy tooth reaches a certain height and has an uneven, bumpy crown. "Grinding your teeth [at night] makes that height go down."
The most important thing you can do if you grind your teeth, advises Rankin, is to talk to your dentist about getting a night guard to prevent it from happening.
Certain types of disordered eating, such as anorexia or bulimia, can be apparent to a dentist. Research shows that gastric acid from purging, which is associated with the conditions, can erode both tooth enamel and dentine, the softer layer just underneath the enamel. The erosion is usually found on the backside of the teeth, Rankin said.
But while enamel erosion can prompt dentists to inquire about eating disorders, it is not always the culprit. Enamel erosion can be genetic or congenital, Panos Papapanou, DDS and professor of dental medicine at Columbia University told HuffPost. Even acid reflux could be the cause.
Coffee, tea, sauces like marinara, energy drinks and dark berries leave their mark. So does chocolate, candy and dark soda. How you may ask? Stains.
"But there are things you can do," Rankin said. "Drink coffee and soda through a straw ― so it stays away from the tooth. Rinsing and brushing right after you eat helps immensely."
And we all know that sugar can cause cavities. But according to Rankin, if patients actually brushed and flossed every time they ate candy, the risk of a dental issue would be much smaller.
Alcohol abuse can cause good oral hygiene habits to fall by the wayside and dentists can smell alcohol on a patient's breath, according to Rankin.
A 2015 study in the Journal of Periodontology also found some insight into the drinking and oral health connection. Brazilian researchers discovered that gum disease, or periodontitis, increased with drinking frequency. The study also showed that overall poor oral hygiene is a common trait among people who excessively drink. The researchers also found that study participants without gum disease had higher levels of plaque than non-drinkers, possibly due to the way alcohol slows down the production of saliva and dries out the mouth.
"Among people that are unaware of whether they have diabetes or not, poor gum status has been shown to be associated with diabetes," Papapanou said. "This is a pretty critical situation in which a dentist can help to identify undiagnosed diabetes."
The relationship between periodontitis and diabetes is not yet totally understood, however researchers know it is a two-way street: Diabetes increases the risk of gum disease, and gum inflammation negatively impacts the body's ability to regulate blood sugar, according to a study published in Diabetologia. And it could be inflammation of the gum that is causing the association between gum disease, diabetes and periodontitis, according to the American Academy of Periodontology.
Furthermore, people with diabetes are three times more likely to experience this most severe type of gum disease. So, if you have diabetes or cardiovascular disease, stay on top of your oral health through regular cleanings, brushing and flossing. It's possible that bacteria can get under inflamed gums and aggravate these diseases further, Rankin noted.
Just as with keeping any area of your body healthy, it's best to keep tabs on what might not feel right and to stay curious about what is happening in the mouth. That includes looking for "pain, swelling, bleeding gums, broken or loose teeth, enamel erosion," Rankin explained.
"If the dentist goes in there and sees this, he or she has to question [the patient]," he said. "But the patient is really the first line of defense."
Take care of your smile ― and the rest of you.