A healthier weight might mean healthier gums

A dentist and his dental assistant examining the patient's teeth

You may have heard the old phrase "Through the lips, straight to the hips." Well, here's some interesting news. It seems that being overweight can cause "swelling" in more than our hips, or thighs, or bellies.

The same fat cells that lead to weight problems can also cause inflammation — irritation and swelling linked to infection — in our gums.

A study on obesity and gum disease published last year by the Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine makes this connection. The study shows that people with fewer fat cells seem to have better gum health.

In other words, people of normal weight seem to have better chances at fighting gum disease.

Here's how it worked. Doctors took 31 obese (more than slightly overweight) people, all with gum disease, and put them into two groups. The first group had an average Body Mass Index (BMI) of 39. The second group had an average Body Mass Index of 35.

The first group had gastric bypass surgery, an operation that limits the amount of food a person can eat. This group also had fat cells removed from their abdomens (their stomach areas). Finally, people in this group got treatment for their gum disease.

The second group didn't have weight-loss surgery. Instead, they were only treated for their gum disease.

Lower blood glucose, better healing

While both groups' gum disease improved, the first group — the group who had surgery — clearly healed better than the second. Tests showed that these people now had fewer fat cells. They also showed lower levels of blood glucose, or "blood sugar," than when the study started.

Glucose is the main measure of a person's risk for diabetes and other problems. So it seems that gastric bypass surgery and fat-cell reduction might also help lower glucose. This could be great news for people with diabetes.

Why is inflammation important?

So now we know that too many fat cells affect our glucose. We also know that somehow they connect to inflammation. Why should we care?

When our gums are inflamed, it can mean infection. Infection leads to the loss of teeth, and even of bone in the jaw. It can also create breaks in the gums. Other research has shown that these "breaks" let dangerous mouth bacteria, "germs," into the bloodstream. Once this happens, studies say, things can get really bad. Heart disease, premature birth, fetal death, arthritis, diabetes: they've all been linked to gum bacteria in the bloodstream.

Why do they think gum disease and fat are connected? It's complex.

The study led researchers to several ideas. One is that too many fat cells lead to a buildup of cytokines. Too many cytokines can change how our bodies create and use insulin. This in turn raises our blood sugar. Somewhere in this area, doctors think, is where there might be a link between high blood sugar and gum disease.

The other idea has to do with leptin. Leptin plays a part in how our bodies burn food and calories. This process is called "metabolism."

When our bodies' leptin levels go wrong, so go our metabolisms. Because in the study patients who had surgery ended up with fewer fat cells, their leptin levels seem to have dropped, too. With fewer fat cells and lower leptin came less gum inflammation.

In the end? Even though doctors aren't sure exactly why, this study says our bodies fight gum disease better when we're carrying around fewer fat cells. It's new research, but it's worth knowing about.

And if you've already been thinking about losing a few pounds, you could wind up with even more to smile about than you first thought.

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