In this series, our bloggers partner with the Highmark health promotion/wellness team to present topics that will help you lead a healthier lifestyle. Our wellness experts have a wealth of preventive health knowledge to share, so don’t miss out on their recommendations and guidance.

How often do you think about your teeth? Like, really think about your teeth? Probably not too often. They’re there when you need them for chewing or biting a nail (or opening a package if you can’t find the scissors), so it’s easy to take them for granted.

Digging into my personal history, I can tell you that I didn’t give my teeth much consideration beyond brushing twice a day and flossing … well, maybe not quite that often. And let me tell you, it’s not a good way to live. When I finally saw a dentist for a checkup after a couple of years of finding excuses to not pick up the phone and make an appointment, I was shocked. Six weeks, five fillings, two and a half root canals (long story), two crowns, and countless hours in the chair later, I finally understood why it’s so critical to take care of your teeth.

As it turns out, your teeth and gums also have quite a lot to do with your overall health. Did you know, for example, that oral infections have been linked to heart disease, diabetes and more?

If you’re concerned about your own dental health, it’s not too late to get started, and Highmark has some tips for the journey.

Brush Up on Dental Health

First, the basics: Brushing your teeth is hugely important. If you do not brush properly, acids in your mouth can break down tooth enamel and lead to cavities. This can cause bad breath, pain and extra trips to the dentist. Nobody wants to have bad breath or see the dentist more than they have to.

The Value of Oral Health

The mouth is the gateway to the human body. By taking care of your mouth, you can help keep the rest of your body healthy.

Oral health goes beyond the teeth and gums, though. It’s the health of your whole mouth, which includes your jaw, chewing muscles, the roof of your mouth, the linings of the mouth and throat, and your tongue, lips, and salivary glands.

Proper brushing, flossing and eating habits are the foundation of good oral health. Much like you visit your doctor for regular checkups, visit your dentist regularly for professional cleanings and exams. He or she may find early signs of a health problem you might not be aware of. Let your dentist know about any changes in your mouth, including swollen gums, sensitivity, pain and bleeding. Beyond the classic toothache, oral health issues also include gum disease, mouth and face pain, oral or throat cancer, and others. By taking care of your mouth, teeth and gums, you can help prevent or lessen some of these problems.

Preventive Care

  1. Always brush your teeth twice a day. This is the most important habit for maintaining a healthy mouth.
  2. Buy a toothbrush with soft bristles. Hard bristles can damage tooth enamel.
  3. Brush your teeth for a minimum of two minutes to make sure the fluoride from your toothpaste is adequately absorbed.
  4. Floss at least once a day to remove bits of food that get stuck in between your teeth.
  5. Replace your toothbrush every three months, or before if you see visible wear and tear, and after you’ve had a cold or other illness.
  6. Visit your dentist regularly for a professional exam and cleaning. Your dentist will check your mouth and give you advice on how to improve your oral health.

The Mind – Body Connection

Everyone wants a bright smile, fresh breath and a pain-free mouth. While those are great benefits of practicing good oral hygiene, they’re only part of the picture.

The average mouth contains 6 billion bacteria, which can cause infections throughout your body. Poor oral health can lead to problems with breathing, eating, swallowing, sleeping and speaking. Research shows a link between oral infections and serious medical problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, lupus, oral cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and stroke.

There is also a link between mouth and mind. Poor oral health can affect your self-image and self-esteem. Conditions affecting the mouth can get in the way of everyday life, causing stress, depression and lost productivity at work.

Eating Habits for Healthy Teeth

Your diet can have a big impact on your oral health. Many of the foods recommended for a healthy body (i.e., dairy, grains, fruits and vegetables, and lean meats) also benefit your teeth and gums. Follow these tips to keep your mouth (and body) healthy.

  1. Don’t snack throughout the day. When you eat, you expose your teeth to acids that wear down their enamel. Eating constantly means that you are increasing the amount of acid in your mouth.
  2. Don’t sip soft drinks. Soft drinks like soda are high in sugar and empty calories. But if you do indulge occasionally, try drinking with a straw positioned toward the back of the mouth to help prevent the sugars and acids from washing over your teeth and wearing away the enamel. And don’t forget to rinse with water immediately!
  3. Don’t chew ice. Crunching down on ice can cause fractures, cracks and chips, and tooth sensitivity. It can also damage existing dental work.
  4. Avoid sticky foods like hard candy or caramel. They coat the teeth and are hard to remove. They can also loosen dental work.
  5. Eat cheese. The calcium in cheese may help protect tooth enamel from decay by increasing saliva.
  6. Drink water throughout the day. Water is a great alternative to sugary drinks, and it rinses away sugar and acids.

When it comes down to it, caring for your oral health is really quite simple! Brush, floss, and be mindful of what you’re eating and when. Follow those simple guidelines and you — and your dentist — will keep smiling.