The tooth fairy, movie-star smiles, and toothy grins have all helped build a reputation for teeth. When it comes down to it, the main job of the teeth is to act similar to the wood chipper, meat mallet, and garbage disposal.
Teeth may look like fossils, but they're actually dynamic living structures. The bonelike enamel (crown) that we see on the outside of each tooth hides an interior chamber filled with a rigid mesh of mineralized connective tissue (dentin). Beneath this layer of dentin, each tooth's core consists of nerves encased in a pulpy sheath. Canals in the center of each tooth root allow nerves to pass through. The tooth is anchored in the jaw by sturdy ligaments and a material called cementum.
The blade-shaped incisors are like a built-in set of knives. The pointy cuspids help you slice, gnash, and sever. The bicuspids (premolars) and molars have broad, blunt surfaces that crush and grind like a mortar and pestle.
Chewing (mastication) is the first step in the digestive process. You would have a hard time swallowing most foods without chewing first. What may be less obvious is that chewing not only makes food easy to swallow, it also multiplies the surface area on which digestive enzymes can work to convert food into energy.
Three pairs of salivary glands moisten food to help it pass through the tube that connects the back of the throat to the stomach (the esophagus). These glands also secrete enzymes that begin to dissolve starches.
Oral Health and General Health are Linked
The importance of dental and oral health has risen in recent years as researchers have discovered a connection between declining oral health and underlying systemic conditions. In other words, a healthy mouth can help you maintain a healthy body. According to the Mayo Clinic, oral bacteria and inflammation can be associated with diseases like:
- Alzheimer’s disease
In addition, bacteria can spread from the oral cavity to the bloodstream, causing a life-threatening infection of the heart valves. Your dentist may suggest administration of preventive antibiotics before performing any dental procedure that could dislodge bacteria in the mouth.
What Can Go Wrong
The oral cavity is a catch basin for all sorts of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Some of them belong there and make up the normal flora of the mouth. In small quantities, they're generally harmless. 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 the gum line thrive in a sticky matrix called plaque. If plaque is not removed regularly by brushing and flossing, it accumulates, hardens, and migrates down the length of the tooth. This can inflame the gums and cause a condition known as gingivitis.
As the inflammation increases, the gums begin to pull away from the teeth, creating pockets in which pus may eventually collect. This more advanced stage of gum disease is called periodontitis. If periodontal disease exposes the root canal of a tooth, laying bare the nerve root, therapy to save the tooth may be necessary.
The mouth may be the site of abscesses or other infections, disorders, or even cancer. Nearly all adults, for example, have been infected with herpes simplex virus, type 1 (HSV-1), the virus that causes cold sores in the mouth or on the lips. This virus may lie dormant, but it remains in the body and can return to cause sores on the lips and inner mouth.
Keeping Your Teeth and Gums Healthy
Good oral health boils down to good general health and common sense. Don't use tobacco products. Brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste twice a day, and floss daily. Flossing is the most beneficial activity you can do to prevent disease in the oral cavity. Have your teeth cleaned by a dental professional every six months. 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 the 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
- fruit yogurt
- pasta sauce
- sweetened iced tea
- sports drinks
- juice or juice blends
- granola and cereal bars