Is Bad Breath Ever a Good Thing?

It’s hard to make the case that bad breath could ever be a boon to anyone. After all, we’re talking about the kind of lingering dental odor that can offend coworkers, irritate fellow bus passengers, strain relationships or even ward off potential suitors. Yet just this past Leap Day, news sources nationwide announced that, in at least one situation, halitosis might actually help rather than harm.

Consider this headline from MSNBC’s The Body Odd: “This Is the Only Time Bad Breath Is a Good Thing.” Or this one from BBC News, which reveals a little bit more about what’s at issue here: “Chemical in Bad Breath ‘Influences’ Dental Stem Cells.”

It’s time we got to the bottom of this. Is there ever a time when bad breath is good for you?

Well, if there is, it doesn’t have anything to do with stem cells. As you can see from the BBC headline above, it isn’t so much oral odor that’s making news, so much as a single compound found in halitosis that’s being used for the greater good. Here’s the 411.

This all started when the Journal of Breath Research published a new study written by researchers from Japan’s Nippon Dental University. The paper discusses the uses of hydrogen sulfide, or H2S, the organic chemical that makes bad breath smell a little like rotten eggs.

The majority of the H2S in your body comes from the bacteria in your mouth, which emit the stink compound into the air you exhale. Your cells also use a tiny amount of H2S to relax involuntary muscles and dilate blood vessels.

However, for the most part, this gas doesn’t belong in your blood in any significant quantity. In fact, in high doses – say, 200,000 times the level found in even the stinkiest halitosis – H2S is lethal, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

So how is H2S a good thing? According to the new study, it helps turn dental stem cells into liver cells.

In an experiment performed under tightly controlled circumstances, the Japanese team took stem cells from adult tooth pulp and used some seriously high-tech laboratory technology to help them grow into fully formed liver cells. Here’s a brief snip from the article to give you an idea if how technical it is:

For hepatic differentiation the cells were cultured in Iscove’s modified Dulbecco’s medium supplemented with ITS-x, ETF, oncostatin, HGF and dexamethasone for 15 days in air containing 5% CO2, with or without H2S at 0.05 ng ml−1.

Oh dear.

To put it simply, researchers grew liver cells by saturating tooth pulp stem cells in a complex chemical bath. Some of the baths contained H2S, while others did not. Those that contained H2S grew cells that gave off more liver-cell proteins.

The implications are that, if scientists could culture liver cells in a dish, they might be able to use them for hepatic transplants. But you probably see the problem here: Bad breath has nothing to do with it!

So is halitosis ever actually a good thing? Not that we know of. Why else would people buy tons of specialty breath freshening products online? Why do dentists and oral health experts recommend using all-natural, oxygenating toothpastes and alcohol-free mouthwashes? Because bad breath is, as its name suggests, bad.

In fact, possibly the only positive spin you can put on oral odor is that it helps your nose determine if a potential mate takes poor care of his or her teeth. In that way, you might call halitosis an evolutionary advantage.

But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

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