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7 Things Your Teeth Say About Your Health

Be alert to these warning signs of trouble.

By , Caring.com contributing editor
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Some messages coming out of your mouth bypass the vocal chords. Turns out that your teeth, gums, and surrounding tissues also have plenty to say -- about your overall health.

"Your mouth is connected to the rest of your body," says Anthony Iacopino, dean of the University of Manitoba Faculty of Dentistry and a spokesperson for the American Dental Association. "What we see in the mouth can have a significant effect on other organ systems and processes in the body. And the reverse is also true: Things that are going on systemically in the body can manifest in the mouth."

So stay attuned to the following warning messages, and have worrisome symptoms checked out by a dentist or doctor.

Dental warning #1: Flat, worn teeth plus headache

Sign of: Big-time stress

Many people are surprised to learn they're tooth-grinders. After all, they do this in their sleep, when they're not aware of it. And they underestimate the physical toll that stress can place on the body. "Crunching and grinding the teeth at night during sleep is a common sign of emotional or psychological stress," says Iacopino.

You can sometimes see the flatness on your own teeth, or feel it with the tongue. Or the jaw may ache from the clenching.

What else to look for: Headaches, which are caused by spasms in the muscles doing the grinding. Sometimes the pain can radiate from the mouth and head down to the neck and upper back, Iacopino says. Mouth guards used at night can relieve the symptoms and protect teeth.

Dental warning #2: Cracking, crumbling teeth

Sign of: Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Older adults, especially, are vulnerable to teeth that appear to be cracking or crumbling away. The enamel becomes thin and almost translucent. But this erosion isn't a normal consequence of aging. In fact, it can happen at any age.

Disintegrating teeth are usually caused by acid that's coming up from the stomach and dissolving them, Iacopino says. The cause: Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD, also called acid reflux disease). GERD causes stomach acid to back up into the esophagus -- and from there, it's a short distance to the mouth for some of the damaging acid. GERD is a chronic disorder caused by damage or other changes to the natural barrier between the stomach and the esophagus.

What else to look for: Dry mouth and heartburn are related GERD symptoms. (But in an older adult in someone else's care -- in a nursing home, for example -- these complaints may go unreported.) Cracking or chipping teeth in a younger person is also a telltale sign of bulimia, the eating disorder in which the sufferer causes herself (or himself) to vomit before digesting. Same net result: Stomach acid washes up into the mouth, over time disintegrating the tooth enamel.