Our teeth are pretty amazing body parts. Not only can they give us a beautiful smile, but they also help us with important tasks like speaking and eating. And according to a recent article from Medical News Today, our teeth can also help our bodies fight off infection.
Scientists from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom have discovered that chewing food, also known as mastication, can cause the release of T helper 17 (Th17) cells in the mouth. These cells form a portion of the adaptive immune system, which can defend against harmful pathogens, with the help of specific antigens. While Th17 cells are produced in the gut and the skin through the presence of friendly bacteria, it has been unclear how they are produced in the mouth.
The team of researchers decided to explore the process, starting with the idea that mastication leads to physiological abrasion and damage in the mouth. They wanted to find out if such damage might play a role in oral Th17 cell production. Researchers fed weaning mice soft-textured foods until 24 weeks of age. This reduced the need to chew while eating. They then measured the release of Th17 cells in the rodents’ mouths, noting a significant reduction in production. To confirm the theory that mastication had a hand in the results, they then found that increasing the levels of physiological damage in the rodents’ mouths, (by rubbing the oral cavity with a sterile cotton applicator), led to an increase in the production of Th17 cells.
Lead author, Dr. Joanne Konkel, and colleagues, believe that these findings indicated that chewing food may help to protect us from illness.
“The immune system performs a remarkable balancing act at barrier sites such as the skin, mouth and gut by fighting off harmful pathogens while tolerating the presence of normal friendly bacteria,” Dr. Konkel wrote. “Our research shows that, unlike at other barriers, the mouth has a different way of stimulating Th17 cells: not by bacteria but by mastication. Therefore mastication can induce a protective immune response in our gums.”
Unfortunately, too many Th17 cells can be problematic. An excess of them leads to an increased risk of periodontitis, or gum disease, which has been associated with numerous other health conditions, including heart disease, dementia, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. The research team also proved this in their study when feeding weaning mice hardened food pellets up until 24 weeks of age. These mice experienced more mastication-induced physiological damage in their mouths and increased periodontal bone loss.
“Importantly, because inflammation in the mouth is linked to development of diseases all around the body,” Dr. Konkel stated, “understanding the tissue-specific factors that regulate immunity at the oral barrier could eventually lead to new ways to treat multiple inflammatory conditions.”