A Healthier Mouth Means
Healthier Lungs and Fresher Breath

lthough most Western physicians are trained to treat the human body as though it were an assemblage of interconnected but separate systems, in reality all the parts of the body constitute a single, deeply integrated system: what happens to one part affects all the others. This age-old fact has been demonstrated yet again by a recent study that revealed an unlikely association between unhealthy gums and lung disease. Researchers at the University at Buffalo (State University of New York) have found new evidence that improved oral hygiene - and thus oral health - may benefit people who suffer from respiratory illnesses such as emphysema and bronchitis (together considered as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and possibly asthma.1

The Buffalo study, led by Dr. Frank Scannapieco, examined a population of 13,792 subjects (20 years of age or greater) over a six-year period. The subjects' lung function was objectively measured, and the researchers found that the results of diminished functional capacity - for example, the inhibition of clearance from the mucosal surface - appeared to develop more in those with periodontal disease.

Reducing the amount of bacteria in
one's mouth helps prevent the
progression of respiratory illnesses.

Dr. Scannapieco suggests that bacteria accumulating in the mouth due to poor oral hygiene (or merely less-than-optimal hygiene) are transmitted into the upper airway, changing its environment in such a way as to make it easier for bacteria to infect the lower airway. His data support the findings from previous studies suggesting a link between periodontal disease and pulmonary (lung) disease.2

As gums recede because of periodontal disease (periodontal refers to all the tissue and structures surrounding and supporting the teeth), aspirated (inhaled) bacteria from the mouth can cause aspiration pneumonia. Although a correlation between these two conditions does not necessarily imply a cause and effect, there is good reason to believe that reducing the amount of bacteria in one's mouth may help prevent the progression of respiratory illnesses such as those mentioned above.

It's interesting to note that some previous studies have also found evidence of an association between periodontal disease and cardiovascular disease, specifically, acute myocardial infarction.3 Apparently, brushing and flossing our teeth regularly does a whole lot more than just make our breath fresher and our mouths more kissable. Keeping our mouths clean is an important part of maintaining our overall physical health. Finding the time and the proper tools for doing so, however, is sometimes a challenge.

One of the easiest and most effective ways to keep our mouths clean and reduce the number of microorganisms that live in them is to use a toothpaste or mouthwash that contains mastic gum - a natural resin derived from the stem and the leaves of the mastic tree, Pistacia lentiscus - which has been shown in numerous studies to have impressive antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.4 (Antimicrobial refers to microorganisms in general, not just bacteria.)

The mastic tree is unusually picky about its environment and grows in only one part of the world: the Mediterranean region. An especially valuable form of this tree is found on the southern part of the island of Chios, which lies off the coast of Greece in the Aegean Sea. Despite repeated attempts to cultivate this special variety elsewhere, no one has yet succeeded (not even elsewhere on Chios). Although mastic trees can be grown elsewhere in the region, they will not produce a resin of anywhere near the same quality.

Throughout much of Western history, mastic gum (or simply mastic) has been used as a food preservative and a digestive aid. Knowledge of its explicit antibacterial ability is relatively recent, however, and only in the past few years has it been found to kill the gastric ulcer-causing bacterium Helicobacter pylori. Life Enhancement Products was the first company to tell the world about the extraordinary value of mastic for helping people with ulcers and stomach distress, such as gastritis. Furthermore, we have beaten the drum for mastic's other beneficial antimicrobial andantioxidant properties (more on these below) and their effects on oral disease, heart disease, and diabetes.5

The very fragrant pistacia lentiscus shrub covers the hills of the southern part of the Greek island of Chios. It grows there and nowhere else in the world

Recent studies demonstrating mastic's antimicrobial properties have verified and expanded on its ancient reputation (among Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern physicians)  as a digestive aid and food preservative. Such studies have come at a good time, as our species' misuse of antibiotics over the last sixty years has created powerful strains of bacteria that are increasingly resistant to these drugs.

Although many bacteria are essential to our survival, and the whole web of life is dependent on them, the harmful ones (pathogens) certainly can be nasty little critters, in part because they continue to mutate into forms that are resistant to many common antibiotics. A study at Washington University in St. Louis recently shed some light on how one class of these destructive microorganisms infects cells,6 which may lead to new weapons in the War on Bugs. Researchers found that bacteria of this particular class, which includes those responsible for causing strep throat and rheumatic fever, infect our cells by chemically "drilling" tiny holes in the cell wall. The bacteria themselves don't enter the cell, however; instead they do their damage by injecting a protein into the cell that interferes with its normal function. A similar system of injecting proteins is also known to occur in another class of bacteria that includes the infamous Escherichia coli and various species of the genus Salmonella.

Studies have verified mastic's
antioxidant and antimicrobial
properties in support of its ancient
reputation as a digestive aid and
food preservative.

Understanding the mechanisms of bacterial infection is obviously essential, as is understanding how bacteria mutate to antibiotic-resistant forms. According to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of four strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae - the leading bacterial cause of pneumonia (there are other causes as well) - now appears to be resistant to penicillin, our first line of antibiotic defense.7 Most alarmingly, some bacteria are showing resistance to vancomycin, the antibiotic of last resort.

The discovery of penicillin and other antibiotics was one of Western medicine's most outstanding achievements. Deadly bacterial infections that had plagued the human species since the beginning of time became easily curable virtually overnight. But because short-sighted farmers have for so many years so zealously overused antibiotics on their livestock as a preventive measure against possible infections, and because so many physicians and veterinarians have overprescribed them for their patients, numerous strains of bacteria are now resistant to these drugs.

When antibiotics are given too frequently to farm animals, pets, or humans, inevitably some mutant bacteria survive and reproduce, creating strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that either inherently lack susceptibility to the antibiotic's mode of action or have acquired resistance by adaptation (such as by developing the ability to make substances that inactivate the antibiotic). As more and more bacteria undergo this process, many scientists are warning that a biomedical crisis will be upon us unless we solve this problem soon. Some have even said that the "Golden Age of Antibiotics," during which we enjoyed unprecedented freedom from many epidemic diseases, is ending and may be seen by future historians as merely a half-century-long anomaly in an otherwise dismal saga of disease and suffering.

 The gummy extract of Pistacia lentiscus, also known as mastic, has been shown in two double blind studies to heal peptic ulcers. Mastic has been shown to kill antibiotic-resistant strains of Helicobacter pylori.

The use of mastic as an antimicrobial agent may provide part of the solution to this problem. The ancient plant extract offers a new and potentially valuable alternative for dealing with the steadily growing population of "super" bacteria. When mastic-leaf extracts were tested on a range of pathogenic microorganisms, they were found to reduce the colonies of various species significantly.4

In addition to being effective against many different strains of the ulcer-causing bacterium H. pylori, mastic also inhibited the growth of Staphylococcus aureus (a common cause of skin infections) and E. coli (a common cause of food poisoning). Mastic has also been found to inhibit the growth of other dangerous bacteria, such as Salmonella enteritidis, Pseudomonas fragi, and Sarcina lutea.4 In addition, mastic extracts were found to have antifungal properties and to destroy such harmful species as Candida albicans (a common cause of fungal infections of the skin and mucous membranes).

When mastic-leaf extracts were
tested on a range of bacteria, they
were found to reduce the colonies
of various species significantly.

Mastic also has antioxidant properties deriving from a class of chemical compounds called phenolics, which are found in the leaves as well as the resin of the mastic tree.8 Studies have shown that mastic's antibacterial and antifungal effects are related to these compounds, and it has been suggested that the phenolics may disrupt the enzyme systems involved in the production of energy for both bacteria and yeasts (which are fungi). Phenolics also damage microbes by altering their structural components.9 We know from other studies that mastic is effective against H. pylori because it creates a chink in the bacterium's armor, its cell wall.10 Traditional antibiotics generally work by preventing the synthesis of bacterial cell walls or by interfering with the bacterium's protein and nucleic acid metabolism. Because mastic's antibiotic properties work on entirely different principles, they provide a whole new line of defense.

So, if you're concerned about the health of your gums and their effect on the rest of your body, or if you just want fresher breath and a more kissable mouth, put the ancient secrets of mastic to work for you.


  1. Scannapieco FA, Ho AW. Potential associations between chronic respiratory disease and periodontal disease: analysis of National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III. J Periodontol 2001;72:50­-6.
  2. Scannapieco FA, Genco RJ. Association of periodontal infections with atherosclerotic and pulmonary diseases. J Periodontal Res 1999 Oct;34(7):340­-5.
  3. Emingil G, Buduneli E, Aliyev A, Akilli A, Atilla G. Association between periodontal disease and acute myocardial infarction. J Periodontol 2000 Dec;71(12):1882-­6.
  4. Iauk L, Ragusa S, Rapisarda A, Franco S, Nicholosi VM. In vitro antimicrobial activity of Pistacia lentiscus L. extracts: preliminary report. J Chemother 1996;8:207-­9.
  5. Grossi SG, Genco RJ. Periodontal disease and diabetes mellitus: a two-way relationship. Ann Periodontol 1998 Jul;3(1):51-­61.
  6. Madden JC, Ruiz N, Caparon M. Cytolysin-mediated translocation (CMT): a functional equivalent of type III secretion in gram-positive bacteria. Cell 2001;104:143-52.
  7. Whitney CG, Farley MM, Hadler J, Harrison LH, Lexau C, Reingold A, Lefkowitz L, Cieslak PR, Cetron M, Zell ER, Jorgensen JH, Schuchat A, Facklam RRN. Increasing prevalence of multidrug-resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae in the United States. N Engl J Med 2000 Dec 28;343(26):1917-­24.
  8. Abdul-Rahman A. Mastiche as an antioxidant. J Am Oil Chem Soc 1975;52:423.
  9. Conner DE, Beuchat LR. Sensitivity of heat-stressed yeasts to essential oils of plants. Appl Environ Microbiol 1984;47:229­-33.
  10. Huwez FU, Thirlwell D, Cockayne A, Ala'Aldeen DA. Mastic gum kills Helicobacter pylori. N Engl J Med 1998 Dec 24;339(26):1946.

Ingredients in this Article

FREE Subscription

  • You're just getting started! We have published thousands of scientific health articles. Stay updated and maintain your health.

    It's free to your e-mail inbox and you can unsubscribe at any time.
    Loading Indicator