The Surprising Link Between Gum Disease and Cancer

Brushing and flossing, the universal mantra of dental professionals, is an essential habit for maintaining oral health. However, according to a growing body of scientific research, it may now become a prescription for saving your life.

Brushing and flossing, the universal mantra of dental professionals, is an essential habit for maintaining oral health. However, according to a growing body of scientific research, it may now become a prescription for saving your life.

For years, a link between gum disease and many systemic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke has been well documented. In January 2007, a Harvard University School of Public Health study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, uncovered a strong correlation of advanced gum disease in men to a 63% higher incidence of pancreatic cancer. A recent research report in the prestigious journal, Lancet Oncology, confirmed that cancer risk increases when gum disease is present. Even the presence of moderate gum disease contributed to an overall 14% increased risk of cancer. These include lung, kidney and blood cancers in both smokers and non-smokers.

A British and American research team at Imperial College in London and Harvard University studied the statistical health records of 50,000 patients from data collected over 21 years. There was a 33% increase in the risk of lung cancer, 50% rise in the risk of kidney cancer, and a 30% higher incidence of blood cancers, such as leukemia, among those with gum disease. Chronic advanced gum disease was the most frightening – with an additional fourfold increase in head and neck cancer for each millimeter of related bone loss around teeth.

While the precise cause of this correlation is the subject of extensive ongoing research, much attention is directed at the inflammation process, the oral biofilm, and the competency of the immune response.

When in balance (homeostasis), the oral biofilm, a complex community of billions of bacteria in the mouth, actually protect you and support your body’s ability to live. However, when disturbed, the oral biofilm produces pathogens (bad bacteria) that lead to gum disease. These bacteria can also get into your blood (circulatory system) and do nasty things. Pathogenic bacteria, and the toxins associated with them, place your immune system on alert (the inflammation process) and cause the liver to produce C-reactive proteins (CRP). CRP levels have inflammatory effects on arteries allowing these bacteria to attach themselves and form dangerous plaques inside the linings of these vessels.

In fact, gum disease has been identified as the body’s most abundant source of chronic low-grade inflammation which is described as “a smoldering fire in your body where the alarm bell is not answered.” This causes a decrease in the body’s immune response, and eventually, irreversible damage to the immune system, which is being identified as a likely factor for the increased cancer risk.

Gum disease is treatable and even reversible. Diligent attention to the formation of unhealthy (smelly, sticky) dental plaque, a sign of an unbalanced oral biofilm, should be regarded as the beginning of a process that can save your life and add years to your lifespan.

Here are my 4 cornerstones to maintain oral health:

1. Brush and Floss Regularly - Okay, I said it – but eliminate harsh, detergent-based toothpastes and alcohol-based mouthwashes which have been shown to disturb and denature the natural ecology and important bacteria that live in the mouth. GO NATURAL and gentle. One of my favorite natural secret weapons for oral health is neem bark products. The twigs were traditionally used for tooth-brushing in India and Asia. Neem bark (also a powder or oil) has polysaccharides in it that have been found to have pH-balancing, anti-inflammatory and even anti-cancer properties.

2. Good Nutrition - Follow my A-list” nutrition: foods which are antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory, and alkaline-forming. This diet is rich in green leafy veggies, fresh juices, colorful berries, and organic protein. It is low in sugars, artificial sweeteners, and refined carbohydrates that promote a more acidic environment.

3. Manage Stress - A damaging influence in most of the body, stress is a killer to your mouth as well. It results in a decrease in the flow of protective saliva which increases your risk for both gum disease and tooth decay. Stress also causes parafunctional oral habits such as clenching and grinding of your teeth (click here to read my last blog on this topic), which can damage your teeth, jaw joint (TMJ), and dental work.

4. Get Regular Exercise - A good fitness routine, both aerobic and non-aerobic exercise, is essential for oral health, promoting a better circulatory system, and a stronger and more competent immune system as well. A number of studies have found that runners have a low incidence of gum disease for these very reasons.

Will you ever feel comfortable in your own skin? That is, if you don't make an effort to protect it? Although 64% of adults do report wearing sunscreen when outside for prolonged periods of time, it turns out that only about 10% of people surveyed actually protect themselves daily, according to a recent review.

No matter what your skin tone is, unless you live in a cave with no sunlight, daily protection with either sunscreen, sunblock or protective clothing can not only protect you from developing sunburns (ouch!) but can significantly reduce your risk of developing skin cancer, particularly the deadliest type called melanoma. In addition, for those of you wanting to keep your youthful looks, daily sunscreen has been shown to reduce the development of wrinkles. A great teacher once told me that the best way to not have wrinkles is not to get them in the first place (think of how much money you can save on useless creams that claim to diminish wrinkles).

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