With an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the American population suffering from some form of bowel disorder, the medical community is always working to find a cure for these painful and often debilitating illnesses. Now, a new link has uncovered an unlikely contributor to digestive disorders: oral bacteria.
The cause is inflammation, the body's infection-fighting process. Inflammation occurs when the body senses that a foreign organism (like bacteria or a virus) is attacking and dispatches white blood cells to protect itself. This increases the blood flow to the affected area and causes a chemical reaction. Some of the chemicals released in this process can cause inflammation. Inflammation is responsible for many common illnesses, from arthritis to periodontitis, and is a contributing factor to illnesses ranging from heart disease to stroke.
The newest findings on bowel disorders seem to echo the issues found in many other inflammation-related illnesses. That’s because people who suffer from bowel disorders also suffer from intestinal inflammation, and that inflammation creates the perfect conditions for oral bacteria to thrive in the gut.
"It becomes a domino effect of sorts," says Dr. Stephen Hill, a dentist from Allen, Texas. "The oral bacteria exacerbate the digestive inflammation, and the digestive disorder gets worse."
So, which came first: the oral bacteria or the bowel disorder? And does the oral bacteria cause the digestive order?
"In the lab tests, doctors found that the saliva of people with Crohn’s disease could trigger inflammation in lab mice with no stomach bacteria," Hill says. "In mice with normal gut bacteria, the saliva was unable to trigger a response, but in stomachs that had no good bacteria to fight off the bad bacteria, the oral bacteria were able to illicit an inflammation response. So, it certainly seems as though, yes, oral bacteria can make bowel disorders worse, and may even be causing them."
Thankfully, according to Hill, while there may not be a cure for bowel disorders like Crohn’s disease or colitis, you can keep oral bacteria at bay.
"Oral bacteria are something we all have, but it can be easily controlled with brushing and flossing," Hill says. "Even advanced-stage gum disease can be treated and prevented from returning. It may not be a cure for digestive disorders, but it could go a long way toward preventing them."