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Disease Prevention Begins in the Mouth

September 2008

By Dale Kiefer

Disease Prevention Begins in the Mouth

Oral hygiene plays a critical role in whole-body health that is sadly overlooked by most doctors.

As a front-line shield against systemic inflammation, one’s oral status profoundly impacts diseases ranging from type 2 diabetes and cancer to rheumatoid arthritis and atherosclerosis.1-8

Recent scientific studies show that many of the nutrients we now swallow also confer benefits when topically applied in the mouth.9-17

Acting as powerful allies in the fight against periodontal disease, these natural compounds can help safeguard against lethal age-related diseases that emanate from our mouths.

The Gums: An Ideal Incubator for Disease

The oral cavity is a near-perfect breeding ground for microorganisms that lead to decay of gums, teeth, and bone.

The Gums: An Ideal Incubator for Disease

Cavities and gum problems that occur in early life are just the beginning. Chronic low-grade inflammation affecting the gums (gingivitis) and inflammation affecting the gums and bones supporting the teeth (periodontitis) has been implicated in the promotion of a variety of insidious systemic disorders, such as coronary heart disease,18 arthritis,6 and even cancer.8,19

Oral inflammation has also been clearly linked to elevated markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein.20,21 In response to these warning signs, scientists noted recently, “Evidence for a link between periodontal disease and several systemic diseases is growing rapidly.”22

Gum Disease and Stroke

Gum disease sets the stage for an increased risk of stroke. A recent review of literature on periodontal disease, published in the Journal of the American Dental Association, concludes that periodontitis among older individuals is associated with an increased risk of developing systemic diseases such as diabetes mellitus, heart attack, and stroke.23 Meanwhile, studies show that efforts to reduce the severity of periodontitis help reduce systemic inflammation,24 and may thereby reduce the risk of cardiovascular events linked with inflammation.25

What You Need to Know: Disease Prevention Begins in the Mouth
  • Optimizing oral health represents a crucial disease-prevention strategy.

  • Poor oral health, particularly periodontitis, can contribute to a wide range of serious diseases ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to stroke and even cancer.

  • Bacteria thriving in the oral cavity contribute to inflammation, which can have detrimental effects throughout the body and may particularly increase the risk of atherosclerosis. Oral bacteria have even been found living inside atherosclerotic plaques.

  • Natural agents such as green tea, aloe vera, lactoferrin, xylitol, folic acid, and hydrogen peroxide can help optimize oral health by targeting plaque-causing bacteria and supporting gum health.

  • Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) shows particular promise in offsetting the inflammation that accompanies gum disease. CoQ10 offers benefits both when applied topically to the gums and when consumed as a dietary supplement. The benefits of supplemental CoQ10 begin at a daily dose of 50 mg.

  • Pomegranate helps preserve periodontal health by preventing the adherence of plaque-inducing bacteria to the teeth, by directly killing oral microorganisms, and by quieting inflammation in the gums.

  • Vitamins C and D may also promote healthy teeth and gums.

  • A two-pronged approach that includes brushing the teeth and rinsing the mouth with natural bioactive ingredients provides the foundation of oral health—a cornerstone of whole-body wellness.

Gum Disease and Obesity

Some researchers are now suggesting that perio-dontitis may contribute to obesity by elevating C-reactive protein, which then acts as a potent inducer of inflammatory cytokines and hormones secreted by adipose tissue.26-29

Scientists have found that elevated C-reactive protein causes fat cells (adipocytes) to store more fat and burn less energy. Indeed, evidence is accumulating that there is a link between obesity, type 2 diabetes, and periodontitis. As one research team noted recently, “Obesity is a significant predictor of periodontal disease and insulin resistance appears to mediate this relationship.”28 A University of Mississippi study found, “…significant correlations between body composition and periodontal disease,” and noted this finding “strengthened arguments that periodontal disease and certain obesity-related systemic illnesses are related…”29

Periodontal Disease Linked With Cancer

Periodontal Disease Linked With Cancer

The link between oral health and cancer remains somewhat controversial, largely because this information is so new. But a recently published study by researchers at the Imperial College of London and Harvard School of Public Health has shed new light on the matter. By carefully eliminating potential confounding factors, such as a patient’s history of cigarette smoking, these scientists sought to identify any statistically significant associations between oral health and the incidence of cancer. Their conclusion is chilling. “Periodontal disease was associated with a small, but significant, increase in overall cancer risk, which persisted in never-smokers,” write the collaborators, in the medical journal Lancet Oncology.19 This conclusion has profound implications. The fact that it arises from data gathered from more than 48,000 men over the course of approximately 18 years lends additional gravity to the findings.

The research team also found significant associations among oral health status and lung, kidney, and pancreatic cancers, as well as cancers of the blood. The investigators note that their results need independent confirmation, but they offer this speculation regarding the implications of the findings: “…periodontal disease might be a marker of a susceptible immune system or might directly affect cancer risk.”19 In either case, periodontal disease takes on new significance, and appears to pose more of a threat to health than has previously been recognized.

Furthermore, a recent study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health tentatively concludes that periodontitis is associated with an increased risk of one of the most deadly cancers. “Compared with no periodontal disease, history of periodontal disease was associated with increased pancreatic cancer risk,” write the Harvard researchers, in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.30

The American Dental Association agrees that “oral health is important for overall health” and indicates that salivary diagnosis may offer a key tool in health assessment. “A wide range of proteins, nucleic acids, hormones, pharmaceuticals, and pathogens can be measured in saliva, making it an excellent candidate for rapid detection and screening of biomarkers for conditions like caries, periodontal disease, osteoporosis, infectious diseases, and cancer,” it says.31

About Periodontal Disease
About Periodontal Disease

Bacteria and other microorganisms are the underlying cause of tooth decay. Bacteria break down compounds from food called fermentable carbohydrates (e.g. sucrose), producing lactic acid and other organic acids as a byproduct. These acids promote enamel and dentin demineralization. This softening of the enamel then leads to the development of dental caries (cavities).

Although bacteria naturally co-exist with us, under certain conditions they form a biofilm. A biofilm is a sort of living carpet composed of various bacteria and even fungi.12 The microorganisms excrete a kind of glue, firmly anchoring themselves to the enamel surface of the tooth. Biofilm formation, and especially biofilm attachment, is at the root of dental disease.57 Plaque is the common term for this living aggregation of various bacteria and fungi. Over time, plaque hardens and takes on various minerals. At this stage, the coating is called tartar. It is this hard coating that dental hygienists work to scrape away in the dentist’s office.

Gingivitis occurs when dental plaque stimulates an immune response in the soft tissues surrounding the teeth. The gums become inflamed and irritated, appearing swollen and red and bleeding easily. If gingivitis is left untreated, it may progress to periodontitis, a condition in which Gram-negative bacteria destroy the supportive structures of the teeth. Periodontitis may ultimately lead to tooth loss.

Avoiding the buildup of plaque is the reason dentists encourage us to brush our teeth and to floss regularly. Brushing mechanically breaks up the film to some extent and rinsing helps remove fermentable sugars. But on the biochemical level, there is more that can be done to fight what is, after all, a biological enemy. This is where natural bioactive agents that target plaque microorganisms and promote gum healing come in.

Botanical and Nutritional Agents Show Promise in Oral Hygiene

Given the potentially lethal risks of poor dental hygiene, it makes sense to utilize all the science available to prevent even the smallest problems in the mouth.

Several nutrients have shown very favorable effects when used as part of an oral hygiene program. Among these are coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), green tea, aloe vera, and pomegranate. These claims have been verified by published research.9-11,32-35 Other beneficial ingredients for healthy teeth and gums include xylitol, lactoferrin, and folic acid.12,13,15,17

Multi-Faceted Benefits of Green Tea

Green tea is well known for its beneficial effects throughout the body, but it is also effective in the fight against dental caries and oral disease. Studies have shown that green tea catechins exert direct antibacterial activity against Streptococcus mutans, one of the key microorganisms responsible for tooth decay. Green tea also helps prevent bacteria from sticking to teeth, by inhibiting a bacterial enzyme involved in this process. It also inhibits production of amylase, an enzyme used by bacteria to break starches down into sugars, which bacteria use to fuel their own growth.34,35

Multi-Faceted Benefits of Green Tea

Furthermore, Asian researchers showed recently that green tea reduces the invasiveness of oral cancer and decreases the production of a protein associated with oral cancer proliferation.36,37 Additionally, American researchers report that green tea arrests the growth and causes self-destruction (apoptosis) of oral carcinoma cells in the laboratory.38

In Japan, researchers conducted a study in which green tea was applied to the teeth of subjects with periodontal disease for eight weeks. Symptoms of periodontitis improved in subjects receiving green tea catechins and there was objective evidence that green tea killed a significant proportion of the bacteria causing periodontitis in these test subjects.39

CoQ10 Helps Fight Oral Disease

Best known as a potent cardioprotective nutrient, CoQ10 has also been shown to improve symptoms of periodontitis when applied topically in the oral cavity.9,32,33 Japanese researchers conducted a placebo-controlled clinical trial in men with established periodontitis. After nine weeks of CoQ10 application, investigators found evidence of “significant improvements” in periodontal status, which were not seen in control subjects.9

An early study on CoQ10’s effectiveness against periodontitis impressed the study’s authors so much, they wrote, “Healing was so excellent five to seven days’ post-biopsy that the biopsy sites were difficult to locate. The healing was viewed as extraordinarily effective.”40 It has been suggested that CoQ10 benefits oral health by reducing the oxidative stress associated with low-grade inflammation of gums and bone.41

Cancer’s Oral Health Link

Tooth loss or gum disease may increase your risk of cancer, scientists say. A recent review of studies examining this link by Harvard researchers revealed a significant increase in risk of the following types of cancers, which persisted in non-smokers:8

  • A two to three-fold increase in oral cancer from tooth loss.

  • A strong association between tooth loss and a type of cancer in the middle to lower stomach called noncardia gastric cancer, even after controlling for the common gut bacterium, Helicobacter pylori.

  • A more than two-fold increase in the risk of pancreatic cancer.

The review did not find a strong link between lung cancer risk and tooth loss or periodontal disease, as the researchers thought any excess risk may have been confounded by cigarette smoking,8 although one study has found such an association.19

In offering an explanation for their findings, the Harvard scientists believe that gum disease may cause general inflammation in the body, which can promote tumor growth. Or, they say, it could be a sign of a weakened immune system. Either way, they conclude that “periodontitis may be a marker for a type of immune function that has implications for tumor growth and progression.”8

Complementary Ingredients for Dental Health

Numerous other natural agents can be incorporated into a dental health program to protect healthy teeth and gums. For example, the natural sweetener xylitol not only has a pleasing sweet taste, it has also been found to help prevent tooth decay.13 Squalene boosts the immune system’s ability to tackle invading microorganisms,14 while lactoferrin specifically halts the growth of bacteria implicated in periodontitis.15

Hydrogen peroxide is an antiseptic commonly used to minimize gingivitis, fight plaque, and promote a clean, fresh mouth.16 Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis) has long been used in folk medicine to soothe burns and promote wound healing. Modern science has shown that aloe has anti-inflammatory properties and does, in fact, promote wound healing and may provide soothing and healing properties to the gum tissues.10,42,43