Think of your mouth as the first chamber of the digestive system, where mucous membranes come into contact with what enters your body. Throughout the entire digestive tract, the immune system is involved in maintaining a healthy environment, and the mouth can be regarded as a window into both the digestive tract and the immune system. Thus, the health of oral tissue can provide information regarding one’s overall health.
Canker sores, also known as apthous ulcers, are transient and often recurrent oral lesions that affect up to 20 percent of the population. There is some evidence that canker sores are related to a disturbance in the immune system, resulting in inflammation and tissue damage. The microscopic appearance of apthous ulcers indicates that some degree of autoimmunity may be involved.
There seems to be no single or universal cause of canker sores. They can be caused by a direct insult to the oral tissue, such as a local trauma or ingested or inhaled allergens. However, since the immune system in the mouth is intricately connected to the rest of the body, and specifically to the digestive tract, recurrent apthous ulcers may be a symptom of an increased systemic inflammatory burden, and a harbinger of further imbalances in the future.
Specific examples of precipitating and predisposing factors may include:
- Chemical irritants or allergens, especially sodium lauryl sulfate (a common ingredient in toothpaste), but also benzoic acid, nickel, parabens, sorbic acid, cinnamaldehyde or dichromate
- Overly acidic foods and beverages
- Food sensitivities, with gluten, citrus and chocolate being the most common sensitivities related to apthous ulcers
- Vitamin or mineral deficiencies, such as B vitamins (B1, B2, B6 and B12), folic acid, zinc and/or iron
- Disturbances in oral or digestive flora, known as dysbiosis
- Psycho-emotional stress
- A co-existing immune or gastrointestinal disorder
- Hereditary factors
Fortunately, apthous ulcers are usually self-limiting and generally respond well to naturopathic treatment. Using nutritional, herbal and therapeutic lifestyle changes can reduce the recurrence and duration of canker sores. Some approaches might include the following:
- Identify and remove potential triggers
- Support digestive function and ecology
- Tonify the immune system
- Replete specific vitamin and mineral deficits
- Enhance tissue healing
Addressing the underlying causes of any imbalance can be a tremendous boon to one’s overall health. For specific treatment suggestions tailored to your unique presentation, come see us at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health by making an appointment at (206) 834-4100.
— Bridget Grusecki, ND, naturopathic doctor and resident at Bastyr Center for Natural Health.