A clean mouth with healthy gums means more than just fewer cavities and fresher breath.

Good oral hygiene is essential to your overall health because the same bacteria responsible for tooth decay and gum disease can wreak all kinds of havoc inside the body, damaging your arteries, heart, brain and more.

And now, new research finds yet another way these germs could hurt you: They could cause or worsen rheumatoid arthritis.

That's the form of the disease not caused by wear and tear on the joints or even aging. It's an autoimmune disorder, in which your own body wrongly attacks itself, tearing your joints apart in the process.

It's painful, debilitating and tough to treat -- but the new study on mice shows that if you keep your mouth clean and have healthy gums, you might avoid it or at least slow it down.

P. gingivalis, the bacteria responsible for gum disease, appears to produce an enzyme called peptidylarginine deiminanse, or PAD.

PAD then transforms certain proteins in your body into citrulline, which your immune system attacks -- and the process unfolds in a way shockingly similar to rheumatoid. It's so similar that mice with a rodent version of rheumatoid exposed to P. gingivalis suffered an earlier onset, faster progression and a far more severe form of the disease, with collagen and even bone falling apart faster.

The study isn't solid proof of a link between gum disease and arthritis, but I don't think I'm alone when I say you should brush and floss after meals in any case.

After all, who wants "dragon breath," gum disease and tooth decay -- not to mention the heart, brain and artery problems I mentioned earlier?

Just be sure to clean your teeth and get healthy gums the right way, and that means avoiding anything with fluoride in it. Fluoride is a powerful toxic metal that can wreck the brain and damage bone even in very small amounts.

And despite the hype, it's not even all that good for teeth.

Use all-natural fluoride-free toothpastes and dental rinses instead.