According to a new study, smoking causes the body to turn against its own helpful bacteria, leaving smokers more vulnerable to disease. This is yet another damaging finding about the world’s most preventative cause of death. The health advice is clear as can be: it’s never to late to quit smoking.
You brush every day, floss regularly, but your mouth manages to maintain a stable ecosystem of healthy bacteria. But if you are a smoker, your mouth is a much more chaotic, diverse ecosystem. And in it, an invasion by harmful bacteria is far more likely, as your defense system is down.
As a group, it is not surprising that smokers suffer from higher rates of oral diseases than non-smokers. Leading the list is gum disease. This is a challenge for our good friends with the metal tools (dentists). The new study investigated the role the body’s microbial communities play in preventing oral disease. That’s right; our friendly bacteria keeping things healthy and tip-top.
The smoker’s mouth essentially kicks out the good bacteria, and the pathogens are called in. So these invasive bacteria are allowed to proliferate much more quickly than they would in a non-smoking environment. For dentists, this means offering more aggressive treatment for smokers and having good reason to suggest quitting smoking.
What happens, from the very first moments of infancy, is that bacteria start forming communities called “biofilms” in your mouth. The researchers state that your body learns to live with them, because, for most people, healthy biofilms keep the bad bacteria away. It’s like a tiny example of how probiotics keep the intestinal system running smoothly.
The researchers compared a healthy bacterial ecosystem in the mouth to a lush green lawn. If you were to add too much water or too little fertilizer, some grass might die and some dandelions might swoop in. In a smoker’s mouth, dandelions are the invasive bacteria that lead to disease.
Swabbing people’s gums, researchers wanted to see which bacteria were present as well as levels of “cytokines,” which fight infection. In a non-smoker’s mouth, bad bacteria are largely absent and low levels of cytokines show the body is not treating the helpful biofilms as a threat.
But smokers start getting colonized by harmful bacteria within 24 hours! When it gets back to a stable environment, they have more invasive bacteria and higher levels of cytokines. That means the body is mounting defenses against infection. This comes across as red, swollen gums (gingivitis) that lead to gum disease. But even beyond that, smokers’ bodies were treating even the healthy bacteria as threatening, suggesting the whole situation is out of whack.
There have been many links in the past between oral health and overall body health. It is a mistake not to take what goes on with your teeth and gums seriously.