Brush Your Heart?

7 03 2012

I was a scrawny awkward teenager, and he was a strapping muscular man of his sixties.  We were at one of those bay-side parks in San Diego, with a large flat lawn at the edge of the still waters, dotted with palm trees and picnic tables.  It was one of those church potlucks, where you set down your cup of punch to get a little more food, and when you get back, there are two identical cups of punch in the same place, and there’s no knowing which is yours.  So you have to get another cup, and the event repeats itself.  Incidentally, it turned out that a boy was deliberately going around placing half-filled cups of punch next to other cups of punch, wherever he found them, for the express purpose of confusing people into abandoning their beverage for a new one.  A sixty-something man was tossing a football back and forth with someone half his age, as he told me of his plans to participate in the Iron Man marathon event in a couple of months, or so.  Apparently, he was a regular participant of these sorts of things.  I’m watching him catch and toss that football, and I’m thinking how amazing it is that he can do that.  Usually, when I tried to catch a football, I got it in the face, and throwing it was slapstick comedy.  He tried to explain to me that if I stayed active and healthy that I could still look as good as him when I was his age.  Yeah, I would have been thrilled to look even half as fit in my teens.  There was no question of “staying” healthy and active.  I’d have to get there, first.  I glanced over at my dad, with his pot belly and chronic health problems, and I look at this guy, and I’m thinking, “Man, he’s going to live forever.”

As it turned out, that healthy strapping man died a couple of weeks later of a heart attack.  Meanwhile, my dad, all these years later, is still alive for all of his unfathomable tenacity.  In all fairness, my dad nearly died more than once of a heart attack, so it wasn’t his great health habits that gave him the edge.  In fact, he’s the only person I’ve ever known who was paralyzed, broke his back, was wheelchair-bound and yet still made a full recovery to unassisted walking.  The truth is, I just don’t get either of these men.  The one who should have been healthy was dead, and the one who should be dead is still alive (not that I’m complaining).  This was not an isolated case, though.  Recent history has a few health pros who died of heart attacks.  The excuse is always the same, that these people obviously had some kind of genetic predisposition that made them more vulnerable to heart disease.

I was at a gathering of friends recently, where a dentist went into his lecture mode, when his eyes got a little glazed-looking, and he told us of  his own personal weltschmerz against the American Medical Association.  According to him, the atherolsclerotic clot that stops blood flow to the heart, inducing heart attack, is actually sixty percent, by weight, bacteria of dental origin.  This, of course, blew me away.  We’ve always been taught that atherosclerosis was the buildup of cholesterol on the lining of the coronary arteries.  That’s the story being promoted everywhere.  We’re told to eat food low in fat, and especially cholesterol, and to get plenty of exercise.  I had to do some internet searching before I could convince myself enough to write about it.  Some authoritative sources do back up this idea, but it still isn’t the version being promulgated publicly.

Now, let’s take this from the simple uneducated perspective.  The clot in my artery is mostly dental bacteria, and possibly it might still contain quite a bit of cholesterol.  I ask myself, is the bacteria primarily responsible for the clot, or is the cholesterol mainly to blame?  Well, I can say with certainty that while blood cholesterol levels maybe should be lower than what they are, blood cholesterol is still essentially a normal constituent of my body and even my blood.  Bacteria, on the other hand, absolutely do not belong in my body.  My blood is supposed to be sterile.  So, when I look at the clot in an artery, I might suppose that the cholesterol is part of the problem, but the bacteria is most likely the real source of trouble.

Atherosclerosis, then, is really just a biofilm, just like the white crud (plaque) that grows freely on your teeth.  You can brush that garbage off your teeth, but I haven’t found a way to brush it off of your arteries.  Physicians have known for years that the gums were an easy access point for blood-borne infection.  Hence, you really do not want a dentist with bad hygiene or an infectious disease.  The relationship between heart disease and tooth decay is unmistakeable, though.  It’s not just that both are caused by bacteria, but that both are caused by the same bacteria.  If the two are related, then it stands to reason that the bacteria in the mouth traveled to the heart, and not the other way around.  Hence, your dentist may have more to do with saving you from a heart attack than your family doctor, and brushing and flossing your teeth daily may be quite a bit more important than diet and exercise.  The validity of this claim still remains to be seen, assuming that anyone ever takes the time to reassess some long-held ideas about heart health.

The connection between diabetes and heart disease starts to make sense, now.  Diabetics have always been more prone to heart attacks than the average Joe, and the reason seems a little clearer, now.  One major symptom of diabetes is poor saliva production.  Normally, the constant flow of saliva in the mouth has a cleansing function, and the disruption of saliva flow leads to a higher incidence of tooth decay, because food and bacteria are able to take up a more permanent residence in the mouth.  If the mouth loses the battle, then the bacteria, apparently, are better able to make the jump from there to the bloodstream, and from there they manage to form a slimy layer coating the arteries.

For those people not familiar with biofilm, it’s simply a layer of bacteria adhered to more bacteria, and so on, and ultimately stuck to some solid surface.  If you want to see some, for example, just remove the drain stopper in your bathroom sink and scrape off some of that dark slime that has been slowing the drain flow.  That is biofilm.  The pink stuff growing on your shower walls is biofilm.  The white stuff that came off of your teeth is biofilm, and the clot clogging your arteries is biofilm.  Traditionally, the field of microbiology has been obsessed with the study of pelagic bacteria, the microorganisms that float through the water.  Recent studies suggest that the bacteria stuck to the sides of your drinking glass actually outnumber the ones swimming through the water.  Hopefully, we all run our glasses through the dishwasher every day, rather than use the same glass day after day without washing.  The strangest form of biofilm I’ve seen, yet, came to me in the laboratory in the form of a pumice stone covered in a fleshy film.  It actually looked like a lump of flesh covered in human skin.  It was the result of a couple month’s worth of sewage flowing over rocks.

Now that we know that atherosclerosis is, in fact, a biofilm, then it stands to reason that the sheering force of fast fluid flow probably diminishes it.  Bacteria that try to cling to solid surfaces always have more trouble when the fluid surrounding them is flowing rapidly.  Hence, there may actually be merit to exercise for heart health.  Also, if diabetes is largely the result of bad eating habits and sedentary lifestyle, then it stands to reason that exercise and good eating habits really are part of the equation for a healthy heart.  All of this is not to encourage people to stop eating right and exercising, but no french fry and no day of sitting around the house explains the existence of dental bacteria in the blood, where there really should be no bacteria.  Eating that fry won’t make microorganisms spontaneously form out of nothing and begin to colonize your heart.

While we’re on the subject, it does bring to mind the matter of a cousin to the coronary clot, the calcification and hardening of the arteries, a condition known as arteriosclerosis.  In my own sophomoric mind, I find that there also seems to be a dental parallel in the form of dental calculus, commonly known as tartar.  If atherosclerosis is really dental plaque, then it stands to reason that arteriosclerosis might actually be dental calculus of the arteries.  As far as I know, this comparison has not yet been explored, though.

To wrap this up, then, the key to sufficient heart health begins with the mouth.  Those who read this blog regularly, if “regularly” is the right word for it, will probably already be looking for the spiritual truth behind the matter.  I wasn’t going to have one, originally, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the condition of the mouth affects the health of the heart, both spiritually and physically.  A habit of complaining, slandering and bad-mouthing does, actually, have a deleterious affect on the spiritual heart.  Hygiene and cleanliness of the mouth is absolutely necessary for a healthy heart, both in a physical sense as well as a spiritual one.

The mouth is the rudder of both the body and the soul, apparently.