Healthy teeth and gums require regular brushing, flossing and maybe a daily swig of mouthwash. Right?

Certainly, that was the oral-hygiene drill you learned as a kid. But there are plenty of other things you can do to keep your mouth in good shape — things you probably already do to keep your body fit, like exercising, cutting calories and eating right.

Wait. How can a weekly Zumba class or the Mediterranean diet boost your dental health? It all has to do with weight.

The obesity connection

A recent study of 160 people in Thailand published in the journal Oral Diseases found that overweight or obese individuals (those with a body mass index of 23 or higher) were at greater risk of oral diseases than normal-weight people. In fact, patients with a BMI of 25 or higher (categorized as obese) were six times more likely to develop periodontitis, a severe infection that can damage gums and even destroy the jawbone.

People carrying extra weight also had higher leukocyte (white blood cell) counts, a sign that their immune systems were activated to battle an infection.

What’s the link? Turns out the more fat cells you have, the more inflammation you have, which can lead to many diseases, including ones in your mouth.

Here’s how it works: Fat cells produce hormones and chemical signals that make the body think it’s under attack and trigger the immune system. Immune cells jump into action, spurring an inflammatory reaction, which is the body’s normal healing response to trauma. But in the case of obesity, it’s too much of a good thing. Fat cells just keep releasing distress signals, and the immune system keeps responding with more inflammation.

Not only are the body’s immune defenses stretched thin by operating in constant battle mode, but the resulting chronic inflammation causes detrimental changes throughout the body that can breed heart disease, cancer, dementia, diabetes, arthritis and, yes, dental disease.

Open wide

The obesity study isn’t the first to tie what’s going on in your body to the inside of your mouth. According to other research, people with diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease (both linked to inflammation) also have a higher risk of oral ailments.

healthy lifestyle equals healthy teeth and gums The less fat you carry and the healthier your lifestyle, the sounder your teeth and gums will be. (Photo: Fit Approach/flickr)

Interestingly, the connection may go both ways. Studies show that individuals with poor dental hygiene and a mouthful of bad bacteria are more susceptible to developing diabetes, heart disease and several other conditions.

All of which suggests there’s some kind of feedback loop between your mouth and your body. That is, dental disorders and problems elsewhere seem to interact and may accelerate one another.

Chicken-or-egg conundrum

Additional studies will likely sort out the seemingly circular cause-and-effect connection between dental health and overall health.

In the meantime, to ensure things are functioning optimally everywhere, you may want to work your health regimen from both ends. Exercise, lose extra weight and eat well to help promote good oral health, but also keep brushing and flossing regularly to get rid of bad oral bacteria and help maintain a disease-free body.