Crazy as it sounds, there is a relationship between flossing, the prevention of gum disease, and your risk of heart disease and stroke, and maybe even cancer. Research has shown, for the past 10 years, that heart disease is more common in patientswith gum disease. This suggests that gum diseaseand cardiovascular disease may be cause-related. The causes are two-fold:
First is the bacteria story.
Bacteria thrives in the dark, moist, warm, orifice known as your oral cavity. (disgusting, isn’t it?) Bacteria can get into your blood stream through your gums at any time, especially if your gums are inflamed, like with gum disease, because your gums are very absorbent. (as a nurse, I administered certain drugs to patients by placing it on the gum tissue under the lips or under the tongue.) Once the bacteria gets to your blood system, it can settle on the inside walls of the arteries anywhere in your body, but it affects the very tiny arteries, like the ones that feed your heart muscle with blood, first. Over time, and through a series of events, this could cause the arteries to narrow, cutting off the blood supply to your heart, eventually causing a heart attack.
The studies that were conducted showed that those with indicators for heart disease had high levels of bacteria in their mouths.
Flossing helps reduce the bacteria in your mouth and helps prevent inflammation of the gums, and gum disease. If your gums are healthy, they are less likely to be inflamed and less likely to transport the bacteria from your mouth to your heart or other arteries like in your brain or other…um…parts. (see here)
The second story involves a blood chemical called C-reactive protein or CRP for short.
CRP is present in your blood when there is an inflammatory process going on, like….you guessed it….gum disease! High levels of CRP’s can cause a chemical reaction in your body that can lead to coronary artery inflammation and clot formation. The CRP leads to the production of chemicals and enzymes that might act on the lining of the artery wall. This process can lead to the narrowing of that artery. Depending on where the artery is, it can lead to a stroke or heart attack.
It is unclear whether the high CRP is a result of the gum disease or the heart disease, so it’s a classic case of “what came first”. But there are several studies that do show, without a doubt, that those who have gum disease also show thickening of the walls of the arteries. This has been shown across the board in those who do not have any other risk factors for heart disease like smoking or high cholesterol.
On a side note: This is the reason why taking daily aspirin is important to those at high risk for heart attacks. The constant low dose of aspirin in your system reduces the inflammation and keeps it in check. Your doctor can tell you if you should be taking aspirin daily, as it has harmful effects as well.
So what does this have to do with cancer?
In a study that followed 2,000 breast cancer patients for more than seven years, they found that women with high CRPs have lower survival rates. Remember, CRPs rise as a reaction to inflammation. Less inflammation, lower CRPs. Inflammation—that is, the body’s physiological response to inflammation—is related to an increased risk of many illnesses including cancer. Inflamed gums cause your body to “respond” by releasing certain chemicals into your blood. Eliminating any source of inflammation, like the inflammation your get with chronic gum disease, in theory, would help reduce the risk of those illnesses.
Another study followed 48,000 men for fifteen years to look for disease progression based on lifestyle. Those with gum disease were twice as likely to get pancreatic cancer as those with healthy mouths. The men with cancer were also found to have high CRP levels. While there are no definitive studies proving that flossing reduces your risk of cancer per se, the dots are there waiting to be connected. Connect them—and then go floss.
Do it right
- Flossing should be done at least once a day…twice is better.
- use whatever kind of floss you like….waxed, unwaxed, dental tape, green, red, bacon or cupcake flavored. Just do it!
- make sure you get in-between each tooth AND the far back (where there is no “in between”)
- use a new section of floss for each section of tooth
- get below the gum line
- don’t worry if your gums bleed, they will get stronger with repeated flossing
- rinse after flossing
- it doesn’t matter if you floss before or after you brush
- you can use conventional string floss, or disposable dental floss picks (although my dentist tells me the string is better) or a shower attachment.
So include this 3 minute routine and you’ll be smiling for lots of reasons.