The many systems of our body may be more connected than we realize. Hormones can affect the skin just as stress can affect sleep and temporomandibular joint dysfunction can affect hearing. But a recent study by Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, has revealed that poor oral health can contribute to another disease: liver cancer.
Poor oral health habits, such as not brushing teeth, can contribute to and cause gum disease or periodontitis. Periodontitis causes inflammation, tooth loss, bone loss and more. But it can also cause dangerous bacteria to enter the bloodstream and find its way to other areas of the body.
Recently, a study found that the bacteria that cause periodontal disease can find its way to the brain and create gingipains, which are a contributing factor in some cases of Alzheimer’s disease. But the study from Queen’s University found that the bacteria can also cause liver cancer. The study was conducted on 469,000 people living in the United Kingdom and sought to examine the connection between oral health and gastrointestinal cancers, which included colon, rectal, pancreatic and liver cancers.
Dr. Kelley Mingus is a dentist practicing in Bend, Oregon. He says the data in the Queens University study is startling.
"There isn’t just an increased risk of liver cancer - there is a 75 percent increased risk," says Mingus. "That is a huge number."
Known as hepatobiliary cancer, the disease was found to occur more frequently in younger, female participants who were living in impoverished conditions. The women were said to consume fewer than two servings of vegetables and fruits daily.
So why the liver? Researchers say that liver function declines when the body is weaker. Patients in the study may have already had liver conditions such as cirrhosis or hepatitis, which lowers liver function, allowing bacteria to thrive.
"The bacteria in question is called fusobacterium necleatum, which is typically found in the mouth but travels to the liver," Mingus says.
Other theories include a poor diet, which may be due to missing teeth.
As for Mingus, he believes that this discovery is just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg.
"If gum disease is responsible for so much already, it’s just a matter of time before we find more ailments that are caused by poor oral hygiene," he says. "Knowing that, why would you not care for your teeth? About six minutes a day to save your teeth and save your life seems like a small price to pay."