Dentist - Dr. Amy Norman, DDS, PS

Can Chewing Your Food Fight Against Illness?

Researchers at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom report that the act of chewing food stimulates the body to produce cells critical to the body’s defense system against infection and illness. These cells, known as T helper 17 or Th17 cells are part of the body’s adaptive immune system, which fights off harmful disease causing bacteria. Researchers have known that these Th17 cells are produced in the digestive system and the skin amid good bacteria, but they did not know how or why these cells were produced in the mouth.

 

The British researchers believed that the normal function of chewing causes physical damage to the mouth, just by the force involved in the act. The team involved in the project believed that this damage is enough to elicit a defense response from the body.

To test their theory, they gave young mice soft foods that required minimal chewing until they were six months old. When they reached six months of age, researchers measured the amount of Th17 helper cells in the mouths of the test mice and found that the mice did not have many Th17 helper cells.

Using the same test group, the researchers rubbed the mouths and gums of the mice with a sterile cotton swab to increase the level of abrasion and damage in the mouth. They measured the mouths of the mice again and found an increase in their levels of Th17 cells.

Researchers concluded that chewing may in fact protect us from illness-causing bacteria. The skin, digestive tract and mouth are the body’s first line of defense against infection.

The project also linked the physical damage and abrasion caused by chewing to an increased risk of developing gum disease. A second group of test mice was fed hard food pellets which caused damage to the soft tissues of their mouths. These mice had increased levels of periodontal bone loss and gum disease compared to the mice in the soft food group.

Gum disease is a collective term for conditions that cause inflammation and infection in the gum line. Gum disease starts as gingivitis, which is a mild inflammation of the gums that causes irritation, redness and swelling. Gingivitis is caused by dental plaque. The condition is treatable with a proper oral hygiene routine that includes brushing and flossing regularly.

"If patients do not brush away dental plaque and have regular cleanings, gingivitis will develop into periodontitis, a more serious form of gum disease," Dr. Amy Norman, D.D.S., P.S., said.

Norman is an Everett, Washington, dentist.

Periodontitis has been linked to illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, early onset of dementia and low birth weight babies.

Scientists performing the UK study think that excessive or severe gum damaged caused by chewing leaves patients open to developing gum disease because the damage leaves tissue open to bacterial invasion- despite the body’s increased production of Th17 helper cells.

The study’s findings are important to understanding the body’s defenses against illness-causing bacteria when they enter the mouth. The mouth is lined with epithelial cells that serve as a protection against germs.

"When these cells become damaged, the mouth becomes a gateway for illnesses and disease," Norman said.

Damage or abrasion from chewing can be mitigated with proper oral hygiene to prevent germs from taking a foothold in the mouth. The cells of the mouth can also become damaged or die off from smoking and the use of tobacco products.

This includes the use of e-cigarettes. A 2016 University of Rochester study showed that the vapor from e-cigarettes damaged cells of the mouth at the same rate as conventional cigarettes.

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