Teeth are actually living structures, though they may not look it. The bonelike enamel, or crown, on the outside of each tooth hides an interior chamber filled with dentin. This is a rigid mesh of mineralized connective tissue. Each tooth’s core consists of nerves encased in a pulpy sheath under this layer of dentin. Canals in the center of each tooth root allow nerves to pass through. Your teeth are anchored in your jaw by sturdy ligaments and a material called cementum.
The form of each tooth dictates its function: The blade-shaped incisors at the front of your mouth are for cutting food. The pointy cuspids next to them help you tear food. The bicuspids, or premolars, and molars have broad, blunt surfaces that crush and grind like a mortar and pestle.
Chewing is the first step in the digestive process. In addition to helping you swallow most foods, chewing also multiplies the surface area of food. This makes it easier for digestive enzymes to convert food into energy.
Three pairs of salivary glands moisten food to help it pass through your esophagus, the tube that connects the back of your throat to your stomach. These glands also secrete enzymes that begin to dissolve starches.
The link between oral health and general health
The importance of oral health has risen in recent years as researchers have discovered a connection between declining oral health and underlying systemic conditions. It turns out that a healthy mouth can help you maintain a healthy body. Oral bacteria and inflammation may be associated with heart disease, endocarditis, premature birth, and low birth weight according to the Mayo Clinic.
Bacteria can spread from your oral cavity to your bloodstream, causing a life-threatening infection of your heart valves. Your dentist may suggest you take antibiotics as a preventive measure before they perform any dental procedure that could dislodge bacteria in your mouth.
What can go wrong
Your oral cavity collects all sorts of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Some of them belong there, making up the normal flora of your mouth. They’re generally harmless in small quantities. However, a diet high in sugar creates conditions in which acid-producing bacteria can flourish. This acid dissolves tooth enamel and causes dental cavities.
Bacteria at and just beneath your gum line thrive in a sticky matrix called plaque. Plaque accumulates, hardens, and migrates down the length of your tooth if it isn’t removed regularly by brushing and flossing. This can inflame your gums and cause a condition known as gingivitis.
Increased inflammation causes your gums to begin to pull away from your teeth. This process creates pockets in which pus may eventually collect. This more advanced stage of gum disease is called periodontitis. Periodontal disease can break down the bone that supports your teeth. Therapy to save your teeth may be necessary in this case.
Your mouth may be the site of abscesses or other infections, disorders, or even cancer. For example, nearly all adults have been infected with herpes simplex virus, type 1. This is the virus that causes cold sores in your mouth or on your lips. This virus may lie dormant, but it remains in your body and can flare up to cause sores.
Keeping your teeth and gums healthy
Good oral health boils down to good general health and common sense. Brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste twice a day, and floss daily. Flossing is one of the most beneficial activities you can do to prevent disease in your oral cavity. Have your teeth cleaned by a dental professional every six months.
Avoid tobacco products.
Follow a high-fiber, low-fat, low-sugar diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables. This type of diet is naturally high in vitamin D, which helps your body absorb and maintain calcium and phosphorus, minerals found in teeth and bones. Limit sugary snacks and foods with hidden sugars like:
- barbecue sauce
- sliced fruit or applesauce in cans or jars that have added sugars
- flavored yogurt
- pasta sauce
- sweetened iced tea
- sports drinks
- juice or juice blends
- granola and cereal bars