Brushing and flossing regularly can keep teeth and gums clean and healthy, but a scientist at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation thinks dental hygiene could be the key to avoiding autoimmune diseases.

OMRF researcher Umesh Deshmukh, Ph.D., isn’t a dentist, but he is an expert on the bacteria that reside in mouths and could be an environmental cause of autoimmune diseases including lupus, Sjögren’s syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis.

Autoimmune diseases are disorders in which the body’s immune system becomes confused or unbalanced and turns against the body instead of protecting it. They have a genetic component—a combination of mutations in the DNA that “prime the pump” for disease—but require an environmental trigger.

“The environmental causes of autoimmune diseases are still a mystery, but we think there may be a connection to our mouths,” he said.

Not only could a combination of genetic testing and microbiology be used to diagnose, and thus treat, patients earlier, Deshmukh said the research might help people to avoid setting off the diseases in the first place.

“Ideally, we don’t want people to get sick at all,” he said. “And the more we learn, the more it seems brushing our teeth and flossing every day might help put off triggering lupus or Sjögren’s syndrome indefinitely.”

Deshmukh said it will take years of research before these preventative screenings make their way to doctors’ offices, but for now, his advice is the same.

“Brush your teeth and floss regularly,” he said. “If nothing else, at least you’ll have a healthy mouth.”