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Drinking alcohol can give you more than strong breath — it may mess up the balance of good versus bad bacteria in your mouth, researchers reported Monday.
That, in turn, can raise the risk not only of gum disease and cavities, but also of cancer and heart disease, they said.
Their findings, published in the journal Microbiome, could help explain why people who drink more may die younger than people who drink less, and why drinking can cause cancer.
"Our study offers clear evidence that drinking is bad for maintaining a healthy balance of microbes in the mouth and could help explain why drinking, like smoking, leads to bacterial changes already tied to cancer and chronic disease," Jiyoung Ahn, an epidemiologist at NYU Langone Health's Perlmutter Cancer Center, said in a statement.
"My report provides another scientific rationale for avoiding excessive alcohol drinking," she added in a telephone interview.
Drinking alcohol kills off many “good” bacteria, and allows some potentially harmful bacteria to flourish in the mouth, they found.
“Such changes potentially contribute to alcohol-related diseases, including periodontal disease, head and neck cancer, and digestive tract cancers,” the team wrote.
Although people who drink lightly to moderately appear healthier than people who don’t drink at all, more and more studies are starting to show that even moderate drinking can damage health.
Drinkers are more likely to develop a range of cancers, as well as heart disease, and alcohol's stress on the liver is well known.
Heavy drinkers also notoriously can lose teeth and develop gum disease. Ahn’s team set out to determine whether some or all of these various types of damage are due to alcohol’s effect on the microbiome in the mouth.
Microbiomes are the collection of microorganisms, including bacteria, yeast and viruses, that live in and on our bodies. They help digest food, can protect from disease and might cause disease, as well.
Researchers are trying to figure out what the elements of an optimal microbiome are but the lack of detailed evidence has not stopped health food stores and websites from offering a range of “probiotic” products that claim to improve health.
The NYU team looked at two big surveys of health in which people provided samples from their mouths for analysis and also provided details of their drinking habits. They ended up with details on more than 1,000 people, including 270 nondrinkers, 614 moderate drinkers, and 160 heavy drinkers.