Your Teeth and Diabetes: What’s the Connection?

Do you ever wonder about your teeth and diabetes?  My guess is, probably not.  Most people with diabetes don’t realize how much their blood sugar can affect their oral health, and why having poorly managed blood sugars can lead to dental infections and tooth loss.

Before I get into all that, here’s a fun fact about my family:  I’ve never had a cavity in my whole life, and neither has my sister.  My grandad didn’t have a cavity until he was in his 60’s, so I think we just inherited his good genes.  It’s either that or the fact that our parents made us brush our teeth with an egg timer when we were kids, which my sister and I thought was outrageous.  Anyway, back to you…

How diabetes affects your teeth

High blood sugar can lead to dehydration.  (Remember that thirst and the need to urinate are symptoms of hyperglycemia?).  When you’re dehydrated, you have less saliva in your mouth.  One of the jobs of saliva is to continuously wash your teeth and get rid of any germs that are hanging around in your mouth.  If you don’t have enough saliva to do the job, the germs stick to your teeth, and they are more likely to cause decay.

Poorly controlled diabetes causes gum disease

For the same reason that high blood sugar can cause tooth decay, it can also cause gum disease — also known as periodontal disease.  Gums become sore, red, and inflamed.  The American Dental Association says that periodontal disease is the most common type of dental health problem in people with diabetes.  One in every five people with diabetes suffers from gum disease, and one in every five cases of tooth loss is linked to diabetes.

Gum disease is a vicious cycle:  a significant infection in the gums raises blood sugar, and elevated blood sugar feeds the infection.  Treating gum disease in a person with diabetes requires treating the infection and managing blood sugars at the same time.

How to keep your teeth healthy with diabetes

The American Dental Association offers these pointers taking care of your teeth if you have diabetes:

  • Get good control of your blood sugars.

  • Avoid smoking.

  • If you wear dentures, clean them daily.

  • Brush your teeth twice a day.  A soft-bristle brush is recommended.

  • Floss your teeth daily.

  • Get regular dental check-ups.

I know…about that last point.  You hate going to the dentist.  I do too, really.  I hate the scraping, the gritty polish, the feeling of being confined to the chair, the taste of latex gloves, the water spraying all over the place…and then there’s the bill at the end.

There’s just not a lot to love about going to the dentist.  I know, I hear you.  But…I really want to maintain my 47-year cavity-free streak, and I really don’t want you to lose your teeth or be in the 20% of people with diabetes who have to live with gum disease.  It’s painful, it’s expensive, and it makes your blood sugars worse.  So, I’ll bite the bullet and go to the dentist if you will, as long as they let me have mint-flavored tooth polish.  Anything else is an abomination, as far as I’m concerned, but that’s a topic for another day…


Action Steps, Day 26:

  1. If it’s been more than six months since your last dental check-up, call your dentist to schedule a visit.

2.  If you don’t have a dentist and you have dental insurance, check with your insurance plan to learn which dentists are in-network.

3.  If the cost of dental care is an issue, call your local health department and ask to speak to the dental health educator.  He or she should have a list of free and low-cost dental clinics in your area.  Dental schools and dental hygiene schools at area colleges and universities are also options to consider for low-cost dental care.

4.  Make sure you’re using a soft-bristle toothbrush.  (Medium and firm brushes are not recommended and can damage gums.)  If your toothbrush is more than 3 months old, get a new one, and make a note on your calendar to buy a new one every 3 months.

5.  I hate to even write this…but floss your teeth.  My childhood dentist had a sign in his office that stuck in my mind.  The sign read, “You don’t have to floss all your teeth, just the ones you want to keep.”

6.  Maybe buy an egg timer? 🙂

7.  If you’re following the 30 Days to Tame Type 2 Diabetes series, today’s physical activity goal is:  pick any kind of movement that feels like fun to you and move around for at least 20 minutes.

Julie Cunningham is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Care & Education Specialist. She believes food is the foundation of good health, and that our culture of obsession about body size is damaging to health, happiness, and productivity in far too many people. When not talking or writing about food and health, she can be found in the the mountains of western NC, where she lives with her family and four legged friends.

Julie Cunningham

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