Once you recognize that a healthy body depends on a healthy mouth – and vice versa – it seems obvious that what helps keep a body healthy helps keep the mouth healthy, too. Yet some people are a little surprised by some of the lifestyle factors that can affect oral health.
Not getting enough good quality sleep, for instance, has been linked to a higher risk of periodontitis. That’s the severe form of gum disease, in which the infection starts to destroy the bone that supports your teeth. It’s the number one cause of adult tooth loss.
While smoking is the number one cause of periodontitis, some research suggests that inadequate sleep is the next strongest cause.
Exercise is another factor that can affect your oral health and the focus of a review published earlier this year which considered 20 years of research on the matter involving more than 300,000 patients. Consistently, the science showed that people who exercised more had a lower risk of gum disease, quite possibly due to exercise’s ability to reduce inflammation. (Inflammation is a hallmark of gum disease.) Those who exercised also were more likely to practice good oral hygiene and eat a healthier diet.
Notably, studies such as this one, which was included in the review, found that the effects were most pronounced in never smokers and former smokers. Smoking appeared to cancel out the benefits of exercise.
Another recent review focused on animal studies, in which the periodontal health of rodents was evaluated after an intervention involving exercise. The researchers evaluated them for alveolar bone loss – that’s the part of the jawbone that contains the tooth sockets – and monitored markers of inflammation.
The results indicated that physical exercise could reduce alveolar bone loss and the pro-inflammatory tumor necrosis factor–α (TNF-α) in serum or gingival [gum] tissue. Inversely, exercise increased anti-inflammatory interleukin–10 (IL-10) in serum or gingival tissue.
This, the research team concluded “suggests that moderate exercise can be implemented in clinical practice to maintain periodontal health.”
Randomized controlled trials involving humans have likewise found that physical activity can improve gum health, not to mention other conditions. A study from 2021, for instance, looked at the impact of 6 months of exercise on patients with gum disease and type-2 diabetes, two conditions that often accompany each other.
Half of the participants engaged in regular physical activity; the other did not. Dental exams were done at the beginning and end of the study period, and both HbA1c and high sensitivity C-reactive protein levels were measured. (C-reactive protein is a common biomarker for inflammation.)
Not only did the exercise group have healthier gums by the end of the 6 months; their HbA1c levels were considerably lower, too, while those in the non-exercise group actually had more inflammation.
These results are consistent with the results of recent studies that have shown that physical activity is associated with a reduced prevalence of periodontitis and improved periodontal health of the population.
Healthy teeth need healthy gums and bone to support them, which is why we make such a big deal about preventing gum disease and taking action at the first sign that something is amiss (usually, that’s bleeding gums). Good hygiene and a healthy diet can take you a long way towards that. (Indeed, some recent research suggests that dietary changes alone can reverse some of the damage.)
Getting more physical activity into your day can add yet another powerful dimension to your hygiene, helping you keep your smile healthy and whole for a lifetime.