WARNING: Heavy drinking and gums

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A new study has revealed that people who drink more than the recommended daily limit of alcohol may have more disease-causing bacteria in their mouths.

The study, published Monday in the journal Microbiome, found that those who drank relatively heavily had fewer “good” bacteria in their mouths than did nondrinkers. Heavy drinkers were also harboring more “bad” bacteria, including bugs that might cause gum disease, heart disease and cancer.

According to WebMD, “The study is one of the latest to look at what factors influence the human ‘microbiome’ — the trillions of bacteria and other microbes that naturally dwell in the body. Many studies have found links between the makeup of the gut’s microbiome and risks of various diseases.”

Such studies have revealed that the more diversity in the gut microbiome, the better for a person’s health.

Research suggests that the same is applicable to the microbiome in the mouth, with an imbalance there likely raising the risk of cavities and gum disease, and possibly cancers of the head, neck and digestive tract, as well as heart disease.

Senior researcher Jiyoung Ahn, of NYU Langone Health in New York City, said, “We wanted to look at the question, ‘What are the lifestyle factors that influence the oral microbiome?'”

Because heavy drinking is linked to higher risks of gum disease and certain cancers of the head and neck, and since there is evidence that alcohol changes the bacterial makeup of the mouth, Ahn said that drinking habits were a natural factor to consider. For the study “heavy” was defined as drinking more than the limit recommended by U.S. health officials: one drink per day for women, and two per day for men.

The study revealed that drinkers, especially those who drank heavily, tended to have fewer Lactobacillales, a type of “good” bacteria commonly found in probiotic supplements. Drinkers were also discovered to have had typically had higher levels of certain “bad” bacteria, such as Bacteroidales, Actinomyces and Neisseria species.

Regarding the outcomes of the study, Yiping Han, a professor in dental medicine and microbiology at Columbia University in New York City, said “at this point, we can’t come to any definitive conclusions.”

Two key questions that remain are why would alcohol selectively cause an increase in some bad bugs and a decrease in some good ones, and does heavy drinking promote certain diseases by changing the bacterial makeup of the oral cavity?

Han noted that the standard advice still applies: “It’s always wise, for everyone, to practice good oral hygiene and have a generally healthy lifestyle.”

According to Ahn, the study provides more evidence that moderation is key.

“We already know that heavy drinking is a risk factor for many diseases,” she said. “So, the possible effect on the oral microbiome is one more reason to avoid heavy drinking.”

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