oral health and immune system, cartoon in cape shielding off germsCOVID-19 has caused many of us to think seriously about our health and look at ways we can boost our immune systems. The enforced break during Alert Level 4 for all non-essential workers saw us swapping long hours in air-conditioned offices for daily walks and bike rides with our kids and four-legged friends. Raised awareness of our personal health has definitely been a positive to come out of the pandemic.

I have to admit that when coronavirus began to spread in New Zealand, oral hygiene wasn’t high on my list of priorities. With three children and a personally compromised immune system, I felt like I had much bigger fish to fry. Skipping the flossing was hardly cause for concern. I did, however, start to research ways we could boost our immune systems. My first thought was vitamin C, and clearly I wasn’t alone in this idea. Just before lock down I visited a large West Auckland pharmacy to stock up only to discover rows and rows of empty vitamin shelves, and a queue for the check-outs that wound halfway around the store. I resorted to placing an online order for the coveted vitamin C but again hit out-of-stocks coupled with ‘major delays in order processing times’.

Resigned to being vitamin-less, I then came across an article explaining the link between oral health and our overall immune system. Most of us understand that our immune system is our body’s complex way of fighting off germs, infections, allergens and so on. And we know that staying healthy (with a good diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep etc) gives your immune system the best chance of fighting off viruses and bacteria quickly. But it’s not as commonly known that your mouth is a major contributor to your immunity and overall health.

Many doctors consider your mouth to be a window to your overall health. Your mouth is the gateway to your digestive and respiratory tracts, hence the link to your immune system. This is why taking good care of your teeth and gums is a good step towards strengthening your immune system.

Dropping the ball when it comes to keeping up regular brushing and flossing routines can result in tooth decay and gum disease. Inflammation in your gums caused by gum disease can lead to infections which affect your entire body. And indulging in sugary treats or acidic drinks too often will likely lead to higher levels of bacteria growth in your mouth. Bacteria causes a raft of issues including increased plaque, decay and infections. Worryingly, it’s also quite common for chronically infected teeth or infected gums to not cause any pain – so don’t assume that your mouth is healthy just because it doesn’t hurt.

If you have a compromised immune system like me, or are even just recovering from a common cold, it’s possible for oral bacteria to cause you to develop an infection in another part of your body. And ignoring COVID-19 for a minute, poor oral health can negatively impact on many serious conditions including heart disease, diabetes, pneumonia, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Maintaining good oral health can lead to good overall health. It frees up your immune system to fight off germs when it really needs to. And don’t forget the added benefits of having a bright, healthy smile and fresh breath! Swapping the vitamin C supplements for a good brushing and flossing routine may take a few extra minutes each day but the evidence is clear about the benefits it provides to your general health.

J.R. is an Auckland resident and mother of three.