Surprising health benefits of chewing gum

Chewing gum can aid recovery after operations and improve alertness

Research shows that chewing gum enhances people’s alertness, whether they are completing tasks at the same time or not.

Research shows that chewing gum enhances people’s alertness, whether they are completing tasks at the same time or not.

 

One end of the gum-chewing spectrum is typified by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, his jaw muscles pulverising wads of gum like a baker kneading dough; and at the other end is the open-mouthed mastication favoured by salesmen and patrons of art-house cinemas.

There’s no denying chewing gum’s popularity: 44.2 per cent of the Irish population – that’s 707,000 households – contribute to Ireland’s expanding chewing gum market, worth €38.6 million. And research suggests that chewing gum – the 20th century’s first item of mass consumption – could arguably be defined as a “nutraceutical”: with health benefits.

Dublin-born Dr Andrew Allen investigated chewing gum in relation to cognitive performance, mood and wellbeing in a paper he co-wrote with Prof Andrew Smith of Cardiff University, published in BioMed Research International last year.

“The most consistent finding . . . was that chewing gum enhances people’s alertness, whether they are completing tasks at the same time or not,” Allen says. “This is consistent with findings from a previous study where we found that chewing gum improved sustained attention, increased heart rate and produced EEG readings indicating a heightened state of alertness.”

Allen, who is with University College Cork’s department of psychiatry and the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre, and Smith found that when people chewed gum during a working day they reported fewer cognitive problems and higher productivity than on days they did not chew gum.

Bug-depleting properites

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This is on a par, say the researchers, with the number of bacteria removed by a clean toothbrush without toothpaste. So there is possible future scope for chewing gum to play a therapeutic role in maintaining dental health. The chewing gum, of course, would need to be sugar-free. According to Euromonitor International, sugar-free gum in Ireland accounted for 94 per cent of value sales in 2014.

Further down the alimentary canal, chewing gum has been shown to improve intestinal motility and this is without swallowing it.

A Dutch study published in the British Journal of Surgery last year describes the results of a “randomised clinical trial of the effect of gum chewing on post-operative ileus and inflammation in colorectal surgery”. Following abdominal surgery, post-operative ileus (POI) often occurs, comprising a delayed return of gastrointestinal function plus inflammation. This study of 120 patients – 58 of whom were given gum to chew following surgery; the remainder were controls – concluded that “gum chewing is a safe and simple treatment to reduce POI, and is associated with a reduction in systemic inflammatory markers and complications”.

But how does gum exert an effect in your intestines? According to the researchers, activation of the body’s vagus nerve, which extends from the brain stem to the abdomen, helps decrease inflammation and POI. The gum also activates the vagus nerve.

And the title of a paper published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 2009 summarises the outcome of a study of 200 pregnant women who had an elective Caesarean section: “Gum chewing stimulates early return of bowel motility after Caesarean section.”

This was backed up in a review in the Journal of Clinical Nursing last year which concluded that “chewing is an effective non-invasive/non-pharmacological and socially acceptable intervention for reactivation of bowel movement post-Caesarean delivery”.

The problems arise once gum is chewed up and chewed out. A joint industry, local and national government initiative, the Gum Litter Taskforce (GLT), was formed in Ireland in 2007. Wrigley, with a 95.3 per cent share of the Irish market, was a founding member. Its aim seems to be bearing fruit with litter caused by gum at an all-time low of 15 per cent.

Improved technology helps remove discarded gum with greater efficiency. John McCandless, chairman of Belfast-based gum-removal company Xpelgum, says the huge demand for an affordable way to remove gum from pavements and other surfaces “was the driver for our team at Xpelgum to support researchers at Queen’s University Belfast, who were working on a chemistry solution to the problem of gum removal. The Queen’s researchers developed a technology that removes gum by using small quantities of innovative and inexpensive liquids. ”

It seems that sugar-free chewing gum confers health benefits and, with more refined behavioural and chemical solutions to address the problem of discarded gum, perhaps it is possible to have one’s gum . . . and chew it.

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