When you think of your mouth, what comes to mind?
A tongue, teeth, and gums maybe – but there is so much more. Your mouth is an ecosystem and contains specialized cells and organs that are a critical part of keeping you healthy.
Your mouth is the gateway to your body and the first line of defense in your immune system. There are a number of structures of the mouth that play a key function in your oral and physical health.
Oral health plays an essential role in overall health and is equally important to maintain. Unfortunately, research has shown that many people have unmet oral health needs, especially those that suffer from chronic diseases. There is an irrefutable link between oral and systemic health.
Let’s consider for a moment – besides the teeth, tongue, and gums, what else is in your mouth? This article serves as a guide to the oral cavity.
Oral Mucosa (or gingiva)
In your mouth, there’s a type of tissue that covers everything except your teeth. This is called the oral mucosa and it’s considered the “skin” of the mouth. Similar to how your skin protects your body, the oral mucosa protects the entire inside of your mouth and serves as a barrier.
The oral mucosa is defined as a mucous membrane that lines the oral cavity. It has an extensive system of nerves, which allows your mouth to be receptive to functions such as taste, temperature, and touch. Also, the salivary glands produce most of their secretions (saliva) through ducts in the oral mucosa.
The oral cavity is often considered a mirror that reflects the overall health of an individual. Many chronic systemic diseases are initially discovered through oral symptoms. For example, right-sided heart failure causes discoloration of the oral mucosa.
Your oral mucosa may be one of the first signs of problems with your digestive health.
The lymphatic system is a sophisticated and fundamental network that works with your circulatory system to carry and filter body fluids. The lymphatic system is also closely involved with immune defense. Lymph nodes and vessels exist in places all over your body, including inside your mouth.
All of the blood and lymph vessels in your mouth drain to larger blood and lymph vessels within your body. This means, the health of your oral lymphatic vessels directly corresponds with the health of your lymphatic system as a whole.
Generally speaking, the human body has an expert method for keeping harmful bacteria out. However, one of the easiest ways for bacteria and toxins to enter your body is through your mouth. The blood and lymph vessels within the oral cavity are a direct channel to the rest of the body.
Your tonsils are immune tissues located at the back of your mouth, on either side. Essentially, they are two lymph nodes that work as a defense mechanism and help to prevent infections in your body. Tonsils harbor white blood cells and B-cells, which produce antibodies.
As pathogens enter the body through the mouth or nose, the tonsils are on the front line of defense against anything harmful. Your tonsils also alert your body to kick on your immune system when you’re fighting an infection. Tonsils are a hard-working element of the immunological defense system within the body.
Enlarged tonsils can indicate a difficulty in normal breathing. You should always check your own and family’s tonsils with a functional dental exam.
The salivary glands, also called sublingual glands, are part of the oral mucosal system and they produce saliva. The mouth is full of major and minor salivary glands that work primarily to defend against infection and disease. In addition to aiding in digestion and oral health, salivary glands play a critical part in systemic health.
Certain elements in saliva can prevent the formation of plaque on your teeth and decrease your chance of gum disease. While saliva supports oral health, it also benefits your health in general. The molecular content of saliva restricts the growth of microbes, protecting both the mouth and the body.
Low saliva can the first sign of an auto-immune condition called Sjrogen’s disease. As auto-immune problems often occur in groups, low saliva should also be checked alongside normal immune system function.
Collagen holds the body together and Type 1 collagen is the most prevalent protein in your body. This important protein is technically a polypeptide, with a complex mixture of amino acids. It’s found in hair, skin, muscles, bones, tendons, blood vessels, and the digestive system.
Collagen is vital for the creation of healthy teeth and gums and aids in cell and tissue regeneration. This elastic substance is found throughout your connective tissues in your mouth—and is necessary to maintain strong bones and oral health in general.
It’s commonly known that collagen production naturally decreases when you get older. This degenerative process is often attributed with signs of aging, such as wrinkled or sagging skin. Lifestyle factors such as eating a high sugar diet, smoking, or high amounts of sun exposure, also contribute to the depletion of collagen.
Collagen plays an integral role in supporting and anchoring cells, making it a protein needed to maintain healthy teeth and gums. Boosting your collagen intake can benefit your oral health by improving:
- Bone density in your jaw
- Bone density in your alveolar (the bone that helps hold your teeth in place)
- The condition of your interdental papilla (the gums between your teeth)
- The condition of soft tissues
From your head to your toes, increased collagen levels supports the health and development of the entire body.
Oral Health is a Map to Systemic Health
We’ve now defined many structures that are associated with the human mouth.
Your mouth is an excellent guide to the rest of your body. Although as a society we tend to place loads of attention on having a straight, sparkly white, camera-ready smile—oral health surpasses perfect teeth. Studies continue to show that when you treat your mouth, you treat your entire body.
The teeth, tongue, and gums are well spoken of and are highly valued in the dental community and beyond. While I agree that maintaining oral health in those familiar areas is crucial, there are other parts of the mouth that demand attention and when analyzed, can provide a glimpse into the rest of the body.
Next time you’re on a health kick, consider your oral health for a closer look into your body. Share this article with someone who would be interested to know that the mouth and body are intricately connected.
Now we want to hear from you. Please leave your questions in the comments below.
Dr Steven Lin’s book, The Dental Diet, is available to order today. An exploration of ancestral medicine, the human microbiome and epigenetics it’s a complete guide to the mouth-body connection. Take the journey and the 40-day delicious food program for life-changing oral and whole health.
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