Your Heart Health and Gum Disease

Written by practitioner Dr. Kevin Boehm —

Gum disease is caused by a number of things. There are always bacteria present in the mouth with the potential to create the gum disease state, but how the body reacts to their presence may be the most important thing.

In a healthy mouth, the gum disease causing anaerobic bacteria are generally present but in far fewer numbers than in an unhealthy mouth. The normal aerobic bacteria are present in abundance which helps our immune system with a check and balance system synergistically limiting the harmful pathogens from rapid population growth. Normal brushing and flossing daily and maintaining a healthy diet of as many organic, non-processed foods all aid the immune system in maintaining this healthy state.

Gum disease worsens through many factors. If improper or insufficient daily care is negligent, the normal highly aerobic bacterial balance shifts to higher anaerobic gum disease producing numbers of bacteria. Our immune system becomes challenged to fight the problematic anaerobes. Our white blood cells release chemical mediators and cell to cell messages to bring reinforcements in to gain the upper hand in this fight. Some of these anaerobes, once killed by the white blood cell response, release what are known as endotoxins, a normal bacterial cell component which when released damages our own healthy cells causing cell death. In essence, it is a friendly fire-like circumstance. In our killing of the harmful pathogens, the bacteria release their chemical time bombs that kill our healthy gum and or bone cells, thereby increasing the amount of collateral damage caused. Certain men and women lack certain chemical safeguards that would protect themselves from their own enzymes’ killing of their own healthy tissues. For example, if endotoxins kill off osteoclast cells (our normal bone remodeling cells), they can release large quantities of the collagenase enzyme. Collagenase is a normal body enzyme that in a controlled setting by our healthy cells is enormously useful, but in this instance, lethal to a lot of surrounding tissue if that enzyme can’t be neutralized quickly enough.

Looking at this from a vascular standpoint here’s what happens to blood vessels in the immediately affected areas of gum disease. Our immune system has used chemical messengers, cytokines and prostaglandins to not only call more white blood cells to fight the ever growing infection, but also these chemicals tell our capillaries (small blood vessels) to open up gaps within their walls to allow the newly arriving white blood cells access in fighting the infection. More bacteria are killed, more endotoxins are released, and now we have blood vessels wide open allowing the invading bacteria and their toxic by-products access to anywhere they would like to go within our body through our blood delivery system. You now have a bigger problem.

The same endotoxin, among other things, has the same lethal effects on muscle, lymphatic, heart, brain and every other differentiated human cell type. Turning this potent killer loose on your heart or brain tissue can certainly cause havoc to be frank. If tunica intima cells (cells that line the inside of your arteries) are damaged, this can certainly lead to scar tissue formation, arteriosclerosis, and hypertension over time. This puts added burden on the kidneys and the heart muscle itself. Over a couple decades if the vascular damage cannot be corrected, renal failure, stroke, heart attack, and quite possibly death can be the result. Heart disease is among the top three causes of morbidity and mortality today, as it has been for a number of years. As we in the holistic field know full well, this is looking at the bigger picture. Proper oral care performed daily limits these risk factors. Failing to do so can have catastrophic effects if left unchecked and untreated. Brushing and flossing is not just about teeth and gums anymore. It’s about raising awareness of the potential for bacterial penetration of our vascular system and allowing a localized infection to spread systematically with the above mentioned outcomes as a partial list of possibilities to the unsuspecting host.

The age adjusted death rates for coronary heart disease and stroke have each reduced about 30% since 1999, according to the latest data in the American Heart Association’s heart disease and stroke statistics (2009 update published online in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association). These reflect the latest data for 2006. “The American Heart Association is proud of the progress this country has made against America’s number one single cause of death and the number three killer,” said Association President Timothy Gardner, M.D. (News release, American Heart Association, Dallas December 15, 2008)

If heart disease is 30% better and still the number 3 killer of Americans, it certainly seems like we have a long way to go.

Okay, heart disease runs in your family and you have been diagnosed with gum disease. What do you do? Unfortunately, we can’t get into everything that it would be wise to do in prevention, supplementation, or nutrition, but here are a few of each that are easy to do and remember.

On the hygiene front, brush 2-3 minutes at least twice daily, and preferably with an electric toothbrush (Oral-B, Sonicare, Rotodent, Crest, etc.) These are proven superior to hand brushing. Floss daily going lightly in an up/down direction making sure to get under the gum line to break up the anaerobes where they love to hide. For those with bridgework, use floss threaders, proxybrushes and/or super floss wherever you are able without causing damage. I prefer non-alcohol containing mouth rinses as another adjunct, and there are a lot from which to choose. For gum disease sufferers, a waterpik on low pressure can be a great thing to flush out problem areas and place medicaments where they can be of best benefit. And by all means, see your dentist at least twice annually.

With respect to nutrition and supplementation, let’s keep it simple. Eating a diet of as much organic whole, raw vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds with small amounts of meat, fish, and poultry, and limiting processed foods is as simple as it gets. You often will derive most of the vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, carbohydrates, and anti-oxidants you need just by doing this. If supplements are needed, and often times are, try these for starters: vitamin C, vitamin E, and CoQ10 are all powerful anti-oxidants that are very useful in our cardiovascular system and in gingival tissue, either diseased or healthy. They are able to neutralize toxins on a cellular level, which is what makes them so useful. There are large numbers of more obscure, or less well known, anti-oxidants, but almost everyone knows about these three.

Just because heart disease runs in your family and gum disease is found, doesn’t mean the executioner’s song is playing. You can alter things over time and effect positive change. But this often takes discipline in diet, hygiene and supplementation, which most individuals choose not to do as they should. Hiding from the problem won’t help. Look hard in the mirror and choose wisely. Accept that hard choices must be made, and do what’s necessary. Gum disease tends to be cyclical in nature and with the proper attention to all phases of health and hygiene, you can certainly do your best to limit your own risks and repair past damage in many instances. mission is the education and advocacy of natural medicine and a holistic lifestyle.

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