Chewing gum does something amazing for pregnant women

A decade-long study found a significant benefit for pregnant women to chew sugar-free gum. How did it work and what exactly is the connection between the two? Here are all the details.

CANDY FOR sale by the kilo in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
CANDY FOR sale by the kilo in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

It sounds strange, but researchers have invested time in it and the results seem promising. An experiment conducted in Malawi found that pregnant women who chewed gum for 20 minutes a day had a low chance of preterm birth or low birth weight. The gum had xylitol, a sugar substitute extracted from various fruits and vegetables commonly used as an alternative sweetener in many products.

A decade-long study by American researchers involving more than 10,000 women found that only 12.6% of pregnant women who chewed gum daily gave birth prematurely compared with 16.5% in the control group. This equates to a 25% decrease in the incidence of preterm births between these groups.

Late preterm labor is defined in infants born between 34 and 37 weeks of gestation. On a global scale, the World Health Organization estimates that 15,000,000  babies are born prematurely or are late preterm each year, about 10% of births worldwide.

Cases of low birth weight, defined as a newborn weighing 2.5 kg or less, were also included in the study group, with only 8.9% of infants being born underweight. By comparison, 12.9% of babies born to mothers who didn’t chew gum daily for 20 minutes were born underweight.

The lead author of the new study, Dr. Kjersti Agard, a maternal health expert from the College of Maternal and Newborn Medicine in Texas, said it was exciting to discover an intervention with a relatively low cost that can provide such results. Agard said, "What is special about our study is that we used available, cheap and tasty means to reduce the risk of a baby being born too early or too small.” She added that these findings stand as long-term evidence linking oral health with premature births.

 Pregnant woman (illustrative) (credit: INGIMAGE) Pregnant woman (illustrative) (credit: INGIMAGE)

Many studies have linked poor oral health with premature births, although the exact reasons for this are unclear. Some scientists suspect that plaque bacteria can pass into the placenta through the bloodstream, causing it to become inflamed. This can disrupt the amniotic sac that surrounds the fetus, causing it to rupture too soon.

Sugar-free gum helps improve oral health by encouraging the mouth to produce saliva. It helps neutralize the harmful acid in the teeth released by plaque, a sticky substance that contains bacteria that feed on the sugar left behind by food and drink, including fruit.

The current study recruited 10,069 women through eight health centers in Malawi, registered before becoming pregnant or within 20 weeks of conception. Of this group, 9670 were able to participate fully, with their health monitored by researchers for about six years. About half of the participants received a supply of xylitol gum and were told to chew the gum for at least 10 minutes a day but preferably twice a day, during pregnancy. The other half of the experimental group didn’t receive the gum and acted as a control group.

The researchers, who presented their findings at the annual meeting of the Maternal-Fetal Medicine Association, said their next step is to replicate the study in other places around the world, which will allow them to determine if a sugar-free gum supply can provide similar benefits in other countries.