It may be hard to believe, but brushing your teeth can help your joints. All dentists will tell you that your dental health is tied to your physical health, but how seriously do we really take that? Your mouth has its own microbiome, which is the mini ecosystem made up of bacteria and other small life forms, just like your gut and your skin. When any of your microbiomes are out of balance, there will be consequences.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease, which is a type of disease where someone’s body attacks itself. In the case of RA, the body is attacking the joints, causing painful inflammation that limits range of motion and affects daily activities. Many people with RA find themselves unable to run, walk, lift things, or even use their hands without severe pain.
How Does RA Start?
In functional medicine, our goal is to discover the root cause of disease. What we’ve learned is that all autoimmune diseases require three things in order to develop:
- Genes: Without the genes for an autoimmune condition, the disease cannot manifest. Genes are not a life sentence, though. We have some control over whether our genes are actually expressed or “stay asleep”. Just because you have the genes, doesn’t mean you’ll have the condition!
- Leaky gut: The cells that make up our intestine lining are held together by tight junctions, which are important for keeping our partially-digested food from seeping out. Many factors, including gluten and NSAIDs such as Ibuprofen, cause these tight junctions to loosen and allow material to leak out, which causes inflammation in the body. Read more about the gut’s connection to RA here.
- Last but not least, a trigger: Many things can trigger an autoimmune response, including viral or bacterial infections.
One specific type of bacterial infection has been tied to RA as a trigger. The bacteria is called Porphyromonas gingivalis and is also a common culprit behind periodontal disease, a common gum disease. In periodontal disease, an infection causes inflammation in the gums and can lead to symptoms such as:
- Swollen, red, and tender gums
- Bleeding gums
- In more serious cases, tooth loss (periodontitis)
Gum Disease and RA
Have you ever wondered what plaque on your teeth actually is? Bacteria such as P. gingivalis produce a sticky film that can build up- and that becomes plaque! The bacteria in plaque create acids, which slowly break down tooth enamel. Not only does the yellowish film not look pretty, but it can lead to gum disease and rheumatoid arthritis. P. gingivalis causes nasty inflammation in the gums, as you can see in the picture above, so just imagine the inflammation it can cause in your joints!
It has become clear that periodontal disease and periodontitis are linked to RA, but recent research has been able to narrow down the link to P. gingivalis bacteria specifically.
In this study, mice that were infected with P. gingivalis bacteria either developed arthritis, or their already existing arthritis got worse. Another study found that the correlation between the antibody to P. gingivalis and RA was even stronger- in fact, two times stronger- than the correlation between smoking and RA. Smoking has been a known major risk factor for RA for many years, but now we know that periodontal disease caused by P. gingivalis bacteria is more than twice as likely to lead to RA. Do you believe the dentists now?
Your RA Might Have a “Friend”
For the most part, good dental hygiene can keep bad bacteria from running rampant. Brushing and flossing twice a day as well as regular visits to a dentist are important steps to take. One way that P. gingivalis can grow is if your mouth is too dry. Unfortunately, another autoimmune condition, Sjögren’s syndrome, specifically attacks the salivary glands and leaves the mouth very dry. Sjögren’s is therefore a risk factor for plaque buildup and periodontal disease. Given what we just learned about the connection between periodontal disease and RA, it should be no surprise that 21% of Sjögren’s patients have also been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
This is a common theme in our office: Many people who have been diagnosed with one autoimmune disease also develop another one or more. In fact, at the time someone is diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, there is a 50% chance that another one already exists. If the genes are there and the environment allows one disease to develop, then it is very likely that other autoimmune genes will be triggered.
At Dr. Autoimmune, we use a functional medicine approach to get to the root cause of complex conditions. Our structured program removes the guesswork and uses science-backed lab testing, diet change, and supplementation to get your body back on track. Using this method, we have an 85% success rate. If you’re interested in finding real solutions for your conditions, fill out the form below to get started!