Gum disease is the most common chronic inflammatory condition in the world, and researchers have established a relationship between oral health and overall wellness.
“The mouth is indeed the gateway to the entire body, not just when it comes to health but also when it comes to disease,” says Petra Wilder-Smith, DDS, PhD, director of dentistry and professor at the UCI Health Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic.
“There is more and more evidence that disease in the oral cavities has a direct link to systemic diseases like colon cancer, infectious conditions of the heart and lungs, and quite a few other diseases.”
Research has also linked gum disease to:
Biofilm's role in periodontal disease
Bacteria in the mouth are the culprits. Plaque — what dentists call biofilm — is a mass of bacteria that grows on surfaces in the mouth. Not all bacteria are bad, but the bad kind can cause both acute and chronic periodontal disease, Wilder-Smith says.
She explains how the bacteria responsible for gum disease can cause illness: “Inflamed blood vessels can become leaky and let bacteria into the blood, where it spreads throughout the body causing disease. Bacteria in the mouth also can be inhaled into the lungs.”
Making things worse, she says some dental devices that use aerosol action for teeth cleaning and drilling may end up spraying bacteria into the lungs.
Removing plaque and keeping it off
Wilder-Smith and her colleagues are conducting research using lasers to measure dental plaque in the mouth and testing toothpastes to determine which ones work best to reduce gum disease.
“We’re trying to find better ways of removing plaque and keeping it off,” she says. “We’re a year into our current study.”
In the study, participants with acute gum disease — called gingivitis — are randomly assigned to brush with one of three over-the-counter toothpastes: one very much like bestselling varieties and two formulations made by the dental gel company Livionex Inc.
The idea is that once plaque is removed, the inflammation goes away and gingivitis is reversed.
For the study, dentists evaluate trial participants’ mouths three times over 21 days, using a clinical examination of swelling, color and bleeding to gauge healing.
A sophisticated laser is used to assess the levels of plaque and biofilm attachment mechanisms.
Wilder-Smith says most toothpastes attack plaque by scrubbing it off.
Toothpaste that penetrates biofilm
The test toothpaste works differently. It contains a natural substance that allows it to penetrate the biofilm and reach the tooth surface. Once there, the substance repels the plaque so that less accumulates.
The toothpaste also stops the plaque components from adhering to each other, making it looser and easier to remove.
“It’s a really cool product,” Wilder-Smith says. “But our studies are double-blind so we don’t know which toothpaste participants are using.”
Although the study will explore the connection between improvements in oral health and general health, Wilder-Smith notes that there already “is plenty of evidence that correlates periodontal health with systemic health.”
Results of the toothpaste study are forthcoming.