Healthy Gums Tied to Heart Health

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A brighter smile isn’t the only reason to brush your teeth and floss regularly. Doing so may actually prevent a heart attack.

According to a study published in the Journal of Periodontology, people with periodontal (gum) disease are at a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Scientists at the University of Liege in Belgium found that diseased gums release significantly higher levels of bacteria into the bloodstream in patients with severe periodontal disease compared to healthy patients. As a result, these harmful bacteria in the blood could travel to other organs in the body, such as the heart.

The research team examined 67 patients, 42 of whom were diagnosed with moderate to severe periodontitis. The remaining 25 patients were healthy people who had never had the disease.

Blood samples were taken before and after patients lightly chewed gum 50 times on each side of their jaw. The number of patients with endotoxemia (the release of certain toxins into the bloodstream) rose from 6 percent before chewing to 24 percent after chewing. Those with severe periodontal disease had four times more harmful bacteria in their blood than those with moderate or no periodontal disease.

‘Missing link’

“We found [that] the mouth can be a major source of chronic or permanent release of toxic bacterial components in the bloodstream during normal oral functions,” said Dr. E.H. Rompen, who directed the study. “This could be the missing link explaining the abnormally high blood levels of some inflammatory markers or endotoxemia observed in patients with periodontal disease.”

The Belgian study is in line with prior findings by the University of Buffalo that suggest periodontal disease may cause oral bacteria to enter the bloodstream and trigger the liver to make C-reactive proteins (CRPs), which are a predictor for increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Researchers compared CRP levels in 59 people with moderate periodontal disease and 50 people with an advanced form to 65 patients who did not have periodontal disease. Adjustments were made for other factors known to be associated with elevated levels of CRP such as age, body mass index, and smoking.

Of the 174 total subjects, 25 percent had CRP concentrations that have been associated with a higher risk of heart problems. Among the 50 people with advanced periodontal disease, however, the percentage increased to 38. In addition, those patients who were infected with bacteria that cause periodontal disease had the highest levels of CRP.

A perfect environment

Bacteria are the primary culprits in gum disease. The largest concentration of these bacteria is found on the tongue, whose countless crevices create a perfect environment for bacteria to live and reproduce.

Bacteria reproduce on a thin layer of plaque, a sticky film that forms on the teeth. Plaque that is not removed can eventually harden into tartar.

Following a meal or snack, bacteria release acids that attack tooth enamel. From here, they begin to go after the gums, causing the tissues to become irritated and inflamed. Gums may bleed or become swollen. This initial stage is called gingivitis, a precursor of periodontal disease.

Gingivitis is reversible with regular dental cleanings and proper care at home. Left untreated, it can lead to periodontitis, a serious bacterial infection that destroys the fibers and supporting bone that hold your teeth in place. When this happens, gums separate from the teeth, forming pockets that fill with plaque and even more infection. As the disease progresses, these pockets deepen further, more gum tissue and bone are destroyed, and the teeth eventually become loose, fall out, or require extraction.

Women at risk

Periodontal disease is a threat to women of all ages due to hormonal fluctuations that occur at various stages of their lives, such as during menstruation or pregnancy.

These hormonal changes can affect many of the tissues in a woman’s body, including the gums. Her gums can become sensitive and at times react strongly to the hormonal fluctuations. This may make women more susceptible to gum disease. Additionally, recent studies suggest that pregnant women with gum disease are seven times more likely to deliver pre-term, low birth-weight babies.

One study looked at 50 women between the ages of 20 and 35 with varying forms of periodontitis. The study found that women who were taking oral contraceptives had more gingival bleeding upon probing and deeper periodontal pockets (signs of periodontitis) than those who were not taking birth control pills.

More than 75 percent of American adults have some form of gum disease. Approximately 15 percent of those between 21 and 50 years old and 30 percent of adults over 50 have periodontal disease, the more advanced stage. Millions of people who have periodontal disease don’t even know it because gum disease can begin and progress without obvious symptoms.

The American Academy of Periodontology offers a free self-assessment tool that can help you determine if you have, or are likely to develop, periodontal disease. After completing their short 12-question online survey you’ll get an instant report indicating whether you are at low, medium, or high risk of the disease.

Something to chew on

Along with regular visits to the dentist and proper home care, some health practitioners suggest oral chelation in the form of chewing gum to fight bacteria.

In traditional chelation therapy, which was developed during World War II to clear toxic metals from the body, EDTA (ethylenediamine tetraacetic acid) is injected into the blood to cleanse the blood vessels and improve blood flow. Studies on animals indicate that oral chelation actually increases tissue stores of nutritional minerals while reducing the amount of toxic metals such as lead. In fact, even the FDA has approved chelation for the treatment of lead poisoning.

Chewing the gum releases 125 milligrams of calcium EDTA into the mouth, which proponents say will deprive bacteria of the iron they need. There is, however, no clinical research on its effectiveness in fighting periodontal disease that we’ve run across yet.

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