How does oral microbiota increase liver cancer risk?
02/20/2020 // Darnel Fernandez // Views

Poor oral hygiene not only affects dental health, causing tooth decay and gum disease, but it can also lead to heart disease and diabetes. Now, recent research suggests that poor oral health can also increase your risk of developing certain cancers.

A study published in the United European Gastroenterology Journal found an association between poor oral health and an increased risk of hepatobiliary cancer, particularly hepatocellular carcinoma, which is the most common type of primary liver cancer in adults.

"Poor oral health has been associated with the risk of several chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes," said lead author Haydee Jordao. "However, there is inconsistent evidence on the association between poor oral health and specific types of gastrointestinal cancers, which is what our research aimed to examine."

How oral health determines liver cancer risk

Liver cancer cases have been on the rise for several decades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that around 33,000 Americans get diagnosed with liver cancer every year, with about 27,000 of these patients dying from the disease. Researchers from the Queen's University Belfast in the UK investigated the association between oral health conditions and gastrointestinal cancer risk, including cancers of the liver, colon, rectum and pancreas.

The researchers enrolled 469,628 participants, aged 40 to 69 years, using data from the UK Biobank prospective cohort study. Of these participants, about 4,069 of them developed gastrointestinal cancer. They also observed that 13 percent of these patients reported poor oral health. Participants with poor oral health were much more likely to be younger, female, living in a deprived socioeconomic area and consumed less than two portions of fruit and vegetables every day. Overall, their initial findings showed no significant associations between the risk of majority gastrointestinal cancers and poor oral health. However, their other findings were much more promising.


Further analysis revealed that there is an increased risk of hepatobiliary cancers in those who self-reported having poor oral health. This particular risk was much higher for hepatocellular carcinoma. However, the researchers claim that the biological mechanisms behind the reason why poor oral health is much more associated with liver cancer than with other forms of gastrointestinal cancer are currently unknown.

"The liver contributes to the elimination of bacteria from the human body,"  said Jordao. "When the liver is affected by diseases, such as hepatitis, cirrhosis or cancer, its function will decline and bacteria will survive for longer and therefore have the potential to cause more harm. One bacteria, Fusobacterium nucleatum, originates in the oral cavity but its role in liver cancer is unclear. Further studies investigating the microbiome and liver cancer are therefore warranted."

According to the researchers, another potential theory explaining this association suggests that patients who have a high number of missing teeth might make changes to their diet, which influences liver cancer risk.

Ways to improve oral health

Maintaining good oral health generally boils down to overall good health and common sense. Below you can find a few ways to keep oral problems at bay, which can help reduce your risk of developing liver cancer.

  • Brush your teeth at least twice every day.
  • Have your teeth cleaned by a dental expert every six months.
  • Use floss.
  • Limit your consumption of sugary snacks and drinks.
  • Adopt a high-fiber, low-fat and low-sugar diet that includes eating more fruits and vegetables.
  • Avoid tobacco products.

Your oral health can affect much more than just your mouth and teeth; it can also contribute to a variety of other health conditions. By improving your oral health, you can reduce your risk of developing certain liver cancers, as well as other health problems.

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