Study Suggests Chewing Sugar-Free Gum Can Reduce Pre-Term Births

by Lauren Gordon
pregnant woman lying on a couch

The findings strengthen the known connection between poor oral health and pre-term birth

Certainly not all pre-term births are the direct result of the health of your gums. But a large new study has found that there’s likely a significant connection between oral health and a healthy gestation period — findings that could increase healthier deliveries and healthier infants around the world by decreasing the number of premies.

Chewing gum can be a godsend for expecting mothers, especially those in their first trimester suffering from nausea. But apparently if you’re regularly chewing sugar-free gum while pregnant, you may be reducing your chances of having a pre-term birth.

A large study conducted in Malawi originally set out to analyze a previous study that indicated a connection between pre-term birth and oral health — and found that women who chewed sugar-free gum twice a day had a 25% smaller chance of having a pre-term baby. Scientists because it’s because the sugar-free gum uses the chemical xylitol as a replacement for sugar — and xylitol also has the ability to improve oral health by reducing bacteria, cavities, and inflammation.

According to Science News, researchers reported at the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine’s Annual Pregnancy Meeting that of the about 10,000 pregnant woman they studied, there was a much lower rate of pre-term birth among the group that chewed the oral-health-boosting sugar-free gum. Specifically, 549 out of 4,349 pregnancies, or 12.6 percent, of the pregnant women who chewed the xylitol gum weren’t preterm. That’s a 24 percent reduction compared with the group who didn’t receive the gum. In those women, 878 out of 5,321 pregnancies, or 16.5 percent, reportedly had babies born before 37 weeks.

The women who chewed the gum also benefited from generally better oral health, findings indicated that those who chewed the gum even experienced less periodontal disease (a condition where tissues around the teeth are inflamed) than those who didn’t.

The study derives from from a decade-long project in the greater Lilongwe area of Malawi where the pre-term birthrate is very high, at 19.1 percent. Over 10,000 women were examined in either an early stage of pregnancy or just before pregnancy, beginning with an initial oral exam. All of the women were also given information on improving oral health from community health workers, while roughly half of the women also received the gum.

Researchers explained that bacteria in the mouth can enter the bloodstream where it can do damage to organs throughout the body, including the placenta.

“Studies finding a link between periodontal disease and preterm birth go back a couple of decades,” Science News noted. “The inflammatory disease has also been associated with atherosclerosis and other ailments… The diversity and size of the microbial community in the mouth is second only to the gut. With periodontal disease, there is a shift in the composition of that oral microbial community, giving way to bacteria that cause inflammation and damage gum tissue. From there, the bacteria may enter the bloodstream to reach other organs, perhaps including the placenta.”

Chewing gum with xylitol helped to check on those oral microbial shifts to reduce cavities and inflammation.

“The findings are very encouraging,” Kim Boggess, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, told Science News, adding that the researchers “are approaching a very complex problem in a low-resource area by trying to use a low-tech, easily applicable intervention.”

Babies born early can face a number of health issues in their first year, including issues with their brains and lungs — and they’re more likely to die in their first year than babies who make it to term.

Readers should note that this study took place specifically in Malawi — where doctors are looking for cost-efficient and real-world ways to decrease pre-term births — and not in other countries like the U.S. But the connection between oral health and pregnancy health is well worth noting until even more research can be done.