Mastic Gum Helps Keep Your Teeth CleanMastic Reduces One Kind of Plaque–Maybe Two
Dental plaque is reduced, and new research
hints at the possibility of arterial plaque as well
By Aaron W. Jensen, Ph.D.
here’s nothing like an emergency visit to the dentist to make you appreciate good oral health. When a toothache strikes, the pain can be so exquisite that nothing matters except getting into that dentist’s chair as fast as possible, knowing that blessed relief will soon be yours. While Dr. Flosswell works his magic inside your mouth, you might be contemplating the error of your ways and thinking, “Darn! If only I had chewed more gum.”
Gum is good for your teeth? That’s not what Mom used to say! Most of us are well aware of the dental dangers of infrequent brushing, lack of flossing, eating too much candy, etc., and we try—with varying degrees of success—to do right by our teeth so as to avoid unnecessary trips to the dentist. But it’s hard to be disciplined, isn’t it, and sometimes it’s just so darned inconvenient to brush and floss as often as we should. Good oral health, however, doesn’t have to be such a hassle. In fact, it is (to a degree) as easy as chewing gum—literally.
Researchers are finding more and more benefits in chewing gum (sorry, Mom). Beside the mindless relaxation it can provide, it may also help to reduce dental plaque and the bacterial damage that can lead to cavities. One gum in particular—mastic gum, which has been used as both a chewing gum and a food in Mediterranean cultures for many centuries—appears to give particularly good results.
Mastic Reduces Acidity of Dental Plaque
Dental researchers from such far-flung places as Turkey and Japan have come to the same conclusion with respect to mastic gum: it really works to promote oral health. In a study published in 2000, Turkish researchers demonstrated that mastic gum helps to reduce the acidity of dental plaque. Although chewing any type of gum (whether sugared, sugar-free, or mastic) is beneficial in this regard, sugar-free gum and mastic gum were the most effective.*
Why is reducing the acidity of dental plaque important? Plaque is a nasty, mucous substance containing millions of bacteria. It coats your teeth, and the bacteria’s acidic secretions cause erosion of the tooth enamel, ultimately leading to the formation of cavities. Eliminating the bacteria protects your teeth from decay, and chewing gum is one way to do that—especially if the gum has antimicrobial properties, which mastic gum does.
Mastic Reduces Oral Bacterial Count
Researchers in Japan conducted two separate but related clinical trials on mastic gum (both of which are reported in one paper) to investigate its beneficial role in preventing dental plaque and improving oral health. In the first trial, aimed at determining the ability of mastic to inhibit bacterial growth in saliva, 20 healthy subjects (dental students, actually) were randomly assigned to chew either mastic gum or a placebo gum for 10 minutes. Saliva samples were collected before the gum chewing and at 1, 2, 3, and 4 hours after it commenced, to determine oral bacterial levels at each time point.
Chewing Gum Alleviates Heartburn
Chewing gum can reduce the symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD (the medical term for acid reflux, or heartburn), according to research presented at an international meeting of gastroenterologists in Orlando, Florida in May 2003. A small pilot study conducted in England focused on 21 patients with GERD. The patients ate a high-fat meal (to maximize the symptoms of GERD) and then chewed gum for 30 minutes. The next day, they ate a similar meal, but eschewed the gum. The level of acid in the patients’ esophagus was measured on each day, and symptoms of GERD were recorded as well.
Patients reported fewer episodes of discomfort and heartburn following the gum chewing, apparently because they had higher pH values (i.e., lower acidity) in their esophagus. On the gum-chewing day, the pH remained in the strongly acidic range only half as long (4 ½ minutes) as on the gumless day (9 minutes). The researchers suggested a simple explanation for this protective effect: saliva stimulated by gum chewing is slightly alkaline, and when it is swallowed, it helps to neutralize the acid in the esophagus, thus alleviating the heartburn. These results are encouraging, but more detailed studies are needed to evaluate the long-term benefits of gum chewing on the symptoms of GERD.
Although any gum will do for this purpose, it makes sense to use mastic gum because of the other health benefits that mastic provides, some of which have been known in folk medicine for two millennia. As far back as the first century A.D., mastic was used in primitive toothpastes and was ingested to alleviate a variety of stomach ailments.
For another angle on heartburn (i.e., from the stomach up rather than from the mouth down), see “Got Heartburn? Try Mastic!” in Life Enhancement, August 2001.
- Mundell EJ. Chewing gum after meals may fight reflux. Reuters Health report, May 20, 2003.
The total bacterial count in the saliva was significantly lower in the mastic group than in the placebo group at all time points, demonstrating that mastic gum effectively limits bacterial growth in the mouth. The effect was equal to that found using a mouth rinse containing benzethonium chloride (an antibacterial agent), and it was observed that mastic inhibited the growth of a wide range of bacteria.
Mastic Reduces Dental Plaque and Gingival Inflammation
In the second trial, 20 subjects participated to determine the effect of mastic on plaque formation and gingival inflammation. At the outset, each subject was given a professional tooth cleaning so as to achieve a score of zero on the plaque index. For the next seven days, no oral hygiene other than gum chewing was allowed (yuck!). Each subject was directed to chew either mastic gum (299 mg of mastic per piece) or a placebo gum for 20 minutes after each meal; thus, three pieces of gum were chewed each day, for a total of one hour.
At the end of this one-week gum-only dental hygiene trial, all the subjects had plaque on their teeth (which just goes to show that chewing gum is no substitute for the power of regular brushing—but we already knew that,
didn’t we?). Those who chewed mastic gum, however, had a significantly lower plaque index at day seven than those who chewed the placebo gum. The researchers concluded, “In agreement with the results of other studies, our results suggest that regular use of mastic chewing gum may be useful to control dental plaque formation through some antibacterial effects.”
The Japanese researchers determined that mastic gum helps reduce gingival inflammation as well. In the same study, the rate of gingival inflammation was 50% higher in the placebo group than in the mastic group, a result consistent with previous reports that mastic has anti-inflammatory activity.
Arterial Plaque Is Worse Than Dental Plaque
Dental plaque is bad enough, but arterial plaque is a far worse health problem for many people.* That’s because the accumulation of plaque inside our arteries impedes the flow of blood through the cardiovascular system and is a major risk factor for heart disease. And because high blood cholesterol levels increase the risk of plaque formation, we are constantly cautioned to monitor our cholesterol levels and maintain a healthy lipid profile.
In our bloodstream, cholesterol is found in two main forms: LDL-cholesterol (bad) and HDL-cholesterol (good). LDL-cholesterol is especially problematic if it becomes oxidized, because then it has a tendency to stick to the inner walls of blood vessels and cause plaque buildup. Researchers have identified many natural antioxidant compounds that inhibit the oxidation of LDL-cholesterol. And (surprise!) mastic is now included in this category—at least in laboratory tests.
Mastic Reduces LDL Oxidation in Test Tubes
Researchers in Greece—the country from which mastic originates (it is the gum resin from the tree Pistacia lentiscus)—investigated the ability of natural gums and resins to inhibit LDL oxidation. In laboratory experiments, they exposed LDL-cholesterol to copper ions, a known oxidizing agent, and incubated the mixture with extracts of six different gums and resins: mastic gum, terebinth resin (from a different Pistacia species), acacia gum (also called gum arabic), tragacanth gum, storax gum (from the liquidambar tree), and dammar resin. They measured the amount of oxidized material after certain time intervals (1, 3, and 6 hours) to determine which agents offered the most antioxidant protection.
All six of the gums and resins showed dramatic protective effects against LDL oxidation in these experiments, but mastic (the only one of the six agents, by the way, that is used as a food) was clearly the best. To learn more about what compounds in mastic provide the benefits, the researchers performed extraction procedures to separate various groups of chemically similar constituents into different “fractions.” These fractions were found, not surprisingly, to differ widely—from nearly inactive to highly active—in their ability to inhibit LDL oxidation.
Mastic gum effectively limits
bacterial growth in the mouth; it
was observed that it inhibited the
growth of a wide range of bacteria.
It is important to bear in mind that these were laboratory tests, from which we can conclude nothing regarding the results that might be obtained in human beings, especially considering that we don’t even know to what extent the chemical constituents of orally ingested mastic may enter the bloodstream in the first place. Consequently, the results of this research, while suggestive of a possible cardiovascular health benefit from mastic, do not provide any real evidence for it. Much further research is needed before any judgment can be made on this question.
With Mastic, Normal Collection Is Better Than Liquid Collection
An interesting angle in the Greek study was that the mastic samples used were obtained from Pistacia lentiscus trees by two different methods, and they gave different results. Some of the mastic was obtained in the traditional way: by slashing the tree trunk to induce the resin to exude through the cuts, just as rubber trees are slashed to obtain latex. This “normal collection” mastic is the type that gave the favorable antioxidant results described above.
In lab experiments, mastic was
found to have dramatic protective
effects against LDL oxidation.
Other samples of mastic used in the study were obtained by a new method called “liquid collection,” in which certain plant hormones are either fed or injected into the tree, inducing it to exude the resin (without the need for slashing) in a less viscous, more liquid form. The mastic obtained in this manner had only half the antioxidant activity of the normal mastic. This means that, although the two samples of mastic came from the same kind of tree, their chemical compositions were not the same. And that means that if you’re going to use mastic, you need to know how it was obtained, to be sure that you’re getting what you want.
Something to Chew on
Getting back to chewing gum, who knew that it could be so good for you? Of course, not all gums are equally beneficial, but mastic gum appears to be the standout because of its potent antimicrobial action against periodontal disease. In the mouth, mastic gum kills the notorious bacterium Helicobacter pylori, among others. And in the stomach and gut, mastic powder taken in capsule form kills H. pylori, which is responsible for most peptic ulcers. All in all, mastic is a boon for those who value their good health. Happy chewing!
- Koparal E, Ertugrul F, Sabah E. Effect of chewing gum on plaque acidogenicity. J Clin Pediatr Dent 2000;24(2):129-32.
- Takahashi K, Fukazawa M, Motohira H, et al. A pilot study on antiplaque effects of mastic chewing gum in the oral cavity. J Periodontol 2003;74(4):
- Andrikopoulos NK, Kaliora AC, Assimopoulou AN, Papapeorgiou VP. Biological activity of some naturally occurring resins, gums and pigments against in vitro LDL oxidation. Phytother Res 2003;17:501-7.