Hands, Hearts and Mouths? How Gum Disease Could Affect the Whole Body

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Did you know bad breath isn’t always the result of skipping brushing or eating a basket of garlic bread? Oftentimes, continual bad breath is more indicative of something amiss in one’s dental health and is regularly linked to gum disease. Gum disease stems from behaviors like the ones stated prior, improper and irregular brushing, forgetting to floss—essentially improper dental hygiene. The neglect of dental health leads to bacteria blooms which cause all the most common gum afflictions.

But not all mouth bacteria cause issues. The human mouth houses over 700 species of bacteria, many of which are helpful (aiding in the digestion process) or generally benign. However, improper dental care can lead to a rapid multiplying of harmful, illness-causing bacteria. The main culprits of gum disease in humans are Treponema denticola and Porphyromonas gingivalis. The first stage of gum disease is gingivitis, which is characterized by inflamed, red, and tender gums that bleed with little stimulation. Gingivitis often arises without paining the infected, so it can easily develop into more serious gum ailments. Periodontitis is a deep gum infection, and if left untreated can result in tooth loss and intense pain. A periodontist can treat more intense afflictions, while gingivitis often resolves itself after a person improves their dental hygiene.

But if losing your teeth isn’t enough of a motivator to maintain proper hygiene, gum diseases’ tangential effects may incite more enthusiasm for flossing. Gum disease has recently been linked to exacerbating multiple serious human illnesses, including but not limited to coronary heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and asthma. Though researchers aren’t sure why, there is stark evidence linking severe gum disease to heart attacks.

In a study monitoring 160 patients at a British hospital, two-thirds of those admitted for heart attacks had severe gum disease (and hence large quantities of P. gingivalis in their mouths). The current theory of how gum disease exacerbates these other ailments rests on the bacteria’s inflammatory qualities. As stated prior, P. gingivalis (in its work causing gingivitis) makes the gums swell, causing discomfort and bleeding. When those P. gingivalis cells were injected into mice during a study done by Dr. Karolin Hijazi, it led to an expedited process of atherosclerosis—or the buildup of fatty material in the arteries. Applying this observation to humans, if hypothetically those cells were to find their way from the mouth into the bloodstream, it is possible that they could inflame the arterial walls. Sustained inflammation has been linked to substance build-up, which exponentially increases the risks of a heart event.

Theoretically the same is true for all the illnesses exacerbated by gum disease. Applying the model to asthma, if the bacteria infected the vessels around the lungs or even the lungs themselves, and incited an inflammatory reaction it would heighten the existent problem. Or if it didn’t directly exacerbate the main issue, its effects on the body create a new issue for the immune system to focus on, distracting it from properly healing the main issue.

The health of our gums affecting our hearts, brains, and pancreas clearly displays the enmeshment of the body’s health. When one part is ill, the whole will eventually be affected. The next post will highlight more specifically the importance and methods of maintaining gum health, and how careful attention and prompt treatment vastly improve quality of life!

Works Cited:

Gum disease and heart health: how are they connected? British Heart Foundation.

How Does Periodontal Disease Affect My Body? Loop Perio.

“Microbiology of Dental Decay and Periodontal Disease.” Loesche, Walter J. National Library of Medicine, U.S. Government.

The Mayo Clinic Staff. “Periodontitis.”

Rathee, Manu, and Prachi Jain. “Gingivitis.” National Library of Medicine, U.S. Government, 27 Mar. 2023.

Wein, Harrison, editor. “Mouth Microbes: The Helpful and the Harmful.” News in Health, U.S. Government, May 2019.