We’ve known for a long time that gum disease and heart disease are linked, but there’s been a lot of debate about whether gum disease actually caused heart disease. Notwithstanding the presence of oral bacteria in your blood and even in arterial plaque, some heart doctors discounted a causal link, pointing instead to the fact that gum disease and heart disease share common risk factors, like diabetes, obesity, and smoking.
But now researchers at the University of Alberta have discovered a direct causal link between gum disease and heart disease, which should go a long way toward settling this debate once and for all.
All Along the Watchtower
You can think of your body like a fortress against infection. Your skin provides a strong wall that encircles it, preventing invasion, while your mouth is the main gate that allows visitors in. Unfortunately, this is also a way that invaders can sneak in and cause havoc. To watch for invaders, your body has “sentinel” cells that patrol the body, looking for signs of infection to attack and destroy.
It turns out your body also has a “neighborhood watch,” where where “civilians”, regular cells, can report infection to the sentinels and call for a response. It turns out this neighborhood watch can actually be part of the problem and may cause more harm than good.
Researchers at the University of Alberta identified a special receptor on cells in the mouth, designated CD36, which interacts with oral bacteria. When CD36 gets stimulated by the presence of oral bacteria, it then triggers toll-like receptors, special receptors on sentinel cells. When these toll-like receptors are triggered, it leads to the release of an inflammatory hormone called interleukin-1 beta (IL1B). IL1B has already been linked to the hardening of arteries, so this leads to a complete causal chain from gum disease to heart disease.
A New Treatment Approach
With every new discovery, we gain knowledge about the way gum disease works and triggers numerous health problems, we learn a little bit about ways we might stop gum disease’s negative effects.
Heart disease isn’t the only negative consequence of gum disease-related inflammation. Bone loss around your teeth that causes you to lose your teeth is only partly due to oral bacteria. It’s also due partly to your body’s immune response, which creates a kind of scorched-earth policy that destroys both your tissue and oral bacteria. Limiting inflammation from gum disease can potentially protect your teeth.
Oral Care Will Always Be Crucial
But if we suppress the body’s natural response to gum disease, we will have to be more careful about our gum disease treatments. After all, the body knows that losing teeth is better than having an infection run wild–so we don’t want to preserve your teeth at the cost of widespread infection.
That means we will have to respond appropriately to gum disease, with proper oral hygiene, regular dental visits, and a rapid response if gum disease develops.
Of course, that is already the smart way to protect your teeth.