It’s easy to think your appearance is the best reason to take care of your teeth. After all, everyone’s smile is better when it features a set of pearly whites. Judging from the market for tooth-whiteners, many people agree.
But beyond the appeal of a healthy smile is the absolute importance of a healthy mouth – and that includes everything in it, from your teeth to your gum tissue to the microscopic substances in your saliva.
That’s because gum disease not only threatens the health of your teeth. As it turns out, it could make you much more likely to develop certain types of cancer. Here’s why.
The stealth disease that strikes at any age
Gum disease starts when plaque forms on your teeth. Without proper care, that plaque gets sticky and harbors all kinds of bacteria, which often mutate into super-toxic bacteria.
Don’t ignore “pink toothbrush syndrome.” When your gums get swollen and bleed easily, it’s an early warning sign you’ve got a problem. Those symptoms usually lead to a diagnosis of gingivitis – inflammation of the gums, almost always caused by infection.
The easiest way to reverse gingivitis is by brushing daily and flossing regularly. This helps remove that sticky bacteria and plaque, which, if left unchecked, tend to cause inflamed gums to pull away from your teeth and create little pockets. Those fleshy pockets then harbor food and bacteria.
Get enough of this in your mouth and the combination of inflammation, bacteria, and your own immune system’s reaction could easily lead to losing your teeth.
Believe it or not, periodontal disease is present in about 85% of the population – so it’s not just an “old person disease” as some would have you believe. It starts as young as high school, where currently half of all high school students have some kind of gingivitis.
People don’t tend to show signs of gum disease till they enter their 30s or 40s, which is when the bacteria associated with it may already be wreaking silent havoc.
The indisputable cancer connection
In a 2017 study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, researchers reported that women with gum disease are as much as 14% more likely to get cancer than women with healthy gums.
Esophageal cancer appears to have the strongest connection to gum disease. But other cancers, including breast, lung, gallbladder, and skin cancer also appear to be connected.
In this particular study, over 65,000 women between the ages of 54 and 86 were asked if they’d ever been diagnosed with any form of periodontal disease. (Periodontal disease is a particular type of gum inflammation that often leads to losing teeth.)
At the end of the study, roughly 7,100 women had been diagnosed with cancer. But those who had reported having periodontal disease were over three times more likely to be diagnosed with esophageal cancer and twice as likely to get a bladder cancer diagnosis. On top of that, periodontal disease increased lung cancer by 31%, skin cancer by 23%, and breast cancer by 13%.
By the way – the researchers in this study focused on women because a link has already been established between men and gum disease. That finding came from a 2007 study out of the Harvard School of Public Health, where more than 51,000 men were tracked for more than a decade.
The results of the study showed men with periodontal disease had a whopping 63% increased risk of pancreatic cancer compared to those without periodontal disease.
So it’s now crystal clear there’s a link across the board, for men and women, between gum disease and cancer. But what does that really tell us? Officially, researchers don’t know why gum disease and cancer are related.
How toxic pathogens invade the rest of your body
One hypothesis points to the bacterial pathogens present when gum disease forms. It’s possible the pathogens are able to move to other areas in your body, infiltrating different types of tissue through the bloodstream and leading to disease.
In fact, I wouldn’t say “it’s possible,” I’d say “it’s likely” – and this theory is widely accepted in the alternative health community. Gum disease was linked to cardiovascular disease years ago, so the newer link to cancer is not a surprise.
The infected mouth is believed to cause a general state of inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation in turn can lead to heart disease, cancer, arthritis, dementia – all so-called degenerative diseases of aging.
Periodontal pathogens have been shown to promote a pro-carcinogenic microenvironment. The link to increased esophageal cancer in particular may be because your esophagus is situated close to your mouth, so it’s easier for pathogens to sneak in there and get embedded in esophageal mucosa, eventually creating a friendly ecosystem for cancer cells.
But even without specifically mapping how gum disease and cancer are connected, it seems obvious to me that any kind of toxin in your body could lead to disastrous consequences, cancer being among the worst.
Brush, floss, repeat
If you want to prevent periodontal disease and thus lower your risk of cancer, take good care of your teeth by flossing and brushing regularly. Also use an antimicrobial mouthwash. There are natural ones – I use a brand called Periowash, but there are others.
I also use good old Listerine from time to time. The original formula, without flavors and sweeteners. This horrifies alternative health mavens because Listerine and most conventional mouthwashes contain alcohol, a carcinogen.
In my view alcohol is mildly carcinogenic, if at all. It mainly increases the risk of cancers of the mouth and esophagus (which are pretty rare cancers) and mostly among people who smoke as well as drink. I think using a conventional mouthwash once a week is pretty safe, and that’s what I do, because – no doubt about it – it clears out plaque more powerfully than the herbal formulas.
Your health up in smoke
While we’re on the subject, periodontal disease is also more likely to develop in folks who drink and smoke a lot, and who are exposed to a lot of secondhand smoke.
But smoking isn’t the only risk factor. In the Cancer Epidemiology study, even those who’d never smoked but had gum disease still had about a 12% increase in cancer diagnosis. This was especially true for skin cancers like melanoma and for cancers of the gastrointestinal tract.
Other risk factors for gum disease are hormonal changes in females, which make gums more sensitive and make it easier for gingivitis to develop. Diabetes is a risk factor, genetic susceptibility may put you at risk, and certain medications can make your mouth vulnerable to more bacteria – especially those medicines that reduce the flow of saliva in your mouth.
So while you can’t really control many of these risk factors, you can control how well you care for your teeth and gums, along with the rest of your body (eating healthy foods, exercising, sleeping regularly. . .).
As important discoveries tend to do, this study on gum disease has prompted spinoff studies in closely related areas. One such study will take a hard look at the different types of bacteria in the mouth of women with gum disease to see if any patterns emerge.
But – no need to wait for more studies. It’s pretty clear that taking care of your teeth and gums could help protect you from not only cancer and periodontal disease, but also heart disease and diabetes.