Gum disease and lung infections: A new connection

It’s a well-established fact that losing too many teeth is linked to heart disease.

Sounds strange, I know. But poor oral health is intimately linked to disease in the rest of your body.

For example, the immune cells that are generated to fight gum disease often turn up in your heart valves and heart muscle. They go a little crazy and attack your heart with more force than is necessary at the least sign of an infection. This destroys heart tissue and leads to chronic heart disease.

Researchers have continued looking for the effects of gum disease on other bodily systems.

Most recently, they’ve discovered that your lungs are another target for mouth bacteria.

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Does one type of bacteria cause both lung and mouth infections?

“We believe that inflammatory bacteria in the mouth create pockets between the gum and tooth, break down the lining and spread to the heart and lungs,” said Dr. Randi Bertelsen of the University of Bergen in Norway. 

For the past two decades, hundreds of participants in the European Community Respiratory Health Survey (ECRHS) have been monitored for respiratory health. Gum samples were taken from these same people about ten years ago.

Now, Dr. Bertelsen is using this data to try and prove a causal relationship between oral health and lung health. He’s most interested in a specific type of bacteria, known as Gram-negative bacteria, named after the Danish microbiologist who discovered it.

“Most chronic lung diseases are characterized by inflammation, with lots of mucus, which makes it hard to breathe,” Dr. Bertelsen states. “This inflammation is caused by Gram-negative bacteria.”

Gum samples from people with periodontitis (gum disease) show a compound knows as lipid A that could be behind the infection caused by Gram-negative bacteria.

This is one avenue of exploration being pursued. The other is a kind of “chicken and egg” scenario.

Which comes first: Gum disease or lung disease?

Patients with severe lung disease, like COPD, often have severe gum disease as well. The only thing that’s not clear is which came first.

Dr. Bertelsen is working to untangle this conundrum. His BRuSH project will enroll young patients with mild to moderate gum disease. Dentists will treat away bacteria from their mouth – the traditional treatment for periodontitis. Saliva and blood samples will be taken before and after the procedure.

“We want to see if removing the bacteria in a relatively young population before they have any respiratory diseases, actually improves lung function,” says Dr. Bertelsen.

If removing the oral bacteria does in fact lead to better lung health, it would show the crucial importance of brushing, flossing, and regular dental visits to prevent future lung disease.

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Don’t wait: Improve your oral health habits now!

Let’s not forget that respiratory viruses can cause lung diseases. We’ve had our fair share of that lately. Covid-19 and pneumonia are two common reasons you want to keep your lungs as healthy as possible.

You don’t need to wait for the results of this study to start taking better care of your mouth right now. You’ll be preserving your teeth, saving your heart, and more than likely, preventing serious lung disease down the line.

Naturally, brushing and flossing after you eat is key to removing food particles that can nourish infection-causing bacteria.

But as with most things health-related, nutrition and food choices can play a big part.

Eating a balanced, whole-food diet is as good for your teeth as it is for the rest of you. And if you’d like some extra insurance, you can take one of these four supplements that fight gum disease.

And if you’re a red wine drinker, you should know that it contains compounds that promote a healthy mouth!

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How flossing and brushing may be good for your lungs — Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation Magazine

Tooth loss associated with higher risk of heart disease — Eureka Alert

Linkages between oral commensal bacteria and atherosclerotic plaques in coronary artery disease patients — National Library of Medicine / Biofilms and Microbiomes

Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.