Mastic Gum: Science and Benefits

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mastic gum in a small dish

 

Dear Mark,

I was researching natural remedies for some dental problems I’ve been experiencing, and I came across the idea of chewing mastic gum. The more I looked into it, the more supposed benefits I discovered. I’m intrigued! Before I try it for myself, have you looked into mastic gum at all? What’s your take?

— Bill W.

Thanks for the question. Yes, I have looked into mastic gum, and there’s something to it. Looking back, I’m surprised I haven’t written about it already. A bunch of research suggests that mastic gum might help not only with oral health but also with a variety of other issues, including:

  • Dyspepsia
  • Ulcers
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer

Mastic gum came back on my radar recently with the renewed interest in proper breathing, spurred by Wim Hof and the publication of books like James Nestor’s Breath. To make a long story short, modern humans’ facial anatomy has changed significantly since the advent of farming and grain-based diets. As food got mushier, jaws became weaker, faces narrower, and airways more constricted. The end result is that although humans evolved to breathe almost exclusively through their noses, many people chronically mouth breathe now, potentially contributing to a host of modern health problems.

Some folks are turning to mastic gum to help build up their masseter (chewing) muscles, the idea being that stronger masseters = wider jawline = improved airways and easier nasal breathing. Of course, eating plenty of steak and raw vegetables—foods that require a lot of chewing—would probably have the same effect…

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What is Mastic Gum?

Mastic gum comes from the resin of the mastic tree, native to the Mediterranean. The particular variety of mastic tree that produces the renowned gum grows on the Greek island of Chios, near Turkey – thus why mastic gum is sometimes referred to as CGM (Chios gum mastic) or, more poetically, the teardrops of Chios.

Chewing tree resin is nothing new for humans. In fact, one of my earliest posts on this blog highlighted a new-at-the-time announcement that archeologists had unearthed 5,000-year-old chewing gum at a dig in Finland. Since then, scientists have successfully extracted DNA from discarded wads of chewing gum from this time period and even older. Using state-of-the-art techniques, scientists have been able to analyze our neolithic ancestors’ oral microbiomes and even know what they were eating around the time they died.7 8 Very cool stuff.

Ancient Greeks used mastic gum, as well as oil derived from the gum, in cooking and medicine, for freshening breath, and as a digestive aid. The gum tastes bitter at first but mellows into a licorice-like flavor as you chew it. Some people enjoy it, others find it vile – like chewing on a pine cone, I’ve heard.

Today, mastic gum, essential oil, or supplements made from dried and ground resin are readily available. Validating what the ancient Greeks knew from experience, contemporary research has shown that mastic gum has antimicrobial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. It contains a host of beneficial compounds (terpenes, in particular), so it’s not really a surprise that it seems to have such wide-ranging effects.9 10

 

Mastic Gum and Dental Health

Getting back to your question, Bill, the answer is yes. In addition to freshening breath, chewing mastic gum seems to improve oral health. More specifically, multiple studies show that chewing mastic gum for 5,11 10,12 or 15 minutes.13 14 reduces the levels of bacteria such as streptococci, lactobacilli, and prevotella, which are known to cause tooth decay. None of the researchers followed up with participants for long enough to see whether they developed fewer cavities or other issues in the future, unfortunately.

One small study also found that chewing mastic gum three times per day for 20 minutes over one week reduced plaque when compared to a placebo gum. Participants in this study were forbidden from brushing their teeth or doing any other oral hygiene, though.15

The bottom line is, mastic gum probably has at least some dental health perks. There’s no harm in asking your dentist if it could help with your specific concern.

Other Benefits of Mastic Gum

Thanks to those aforementioned beneficial plant compounds, the health-promoting effects of mastic gum extend well beyond your mouth. More research is needed (a common refrain around these parts), but mastic gum shows promise for a variety of conditions including:

Ulcers

A study conducted back in 1984 found that people who took 1 gram of mastic powder every day for two weeks significantly improved ulcer symptoms and showed more signs of healing than counterparts in a placebo condition.16 Since then, multiple lines of evidence suggest that mastic gum, and some of the individual components therein, can effectively combat H. pylori.17 (However, results here are mixed, with some studies showing no effect.) H. pylori bacteria are responsible for the vast majority of ulcers in both the stomach and small intestine.

Cancer

H. pylori is also a risk factor for developing stomach cancer, although there is no direct evidence that mastic gum is useful for prevention or treatment.

That said, a large number of studies have shown that mastic gum and mastic oil are cytotoxic (literally, “cell killing”) for cancer cells, including colon, lung, and pancreatic cancers and leukemia. Researchers have identified a number of pathways by which mastic compounds halt cancer proliferation by facilitating apoptosis.18 Thus far, this research has been confined to in vitro studies (studies using cells) and mouse studies, so it’s too soon to know whether mastic gum would fight cancer in humans. Still, it’s interesting.

Chron’s disease

Two small studies found that taking mastic supplements (2.2 grams per day for four weeks) reduced inflammatory cytokines in patients with active Chron’s disease.19 20

High lipids, blood glucose, and insulin resistance

I’m lumping these together because that’s what the handful of available human studies have done:

  • Healthy Japanese men took 5 grams of mastic powder or a placebo each day for six months. Researchers also told half of the men in the mastic powder group to add brisk walks three times per week. Compared to the placebo group, all the men who took mastic powder had lower triglyceride levels after three months, but these differences disappeared by the six-month mark. However, after six months, both mastic powder groups had significantly lower insulin levels and HOMA-IR, a measure of insulin resistance.21
  • A group of men and women aged 50 and above received either a high dose (5 grams a day for 18 months) or a low dose (less than one-seventh that amount for 12 months). Total cholesterol and LDL decreased over time in the high-dose group, but the effect was only significant in men.22
  • One hundred fifty-six men and women with total cholesterol over 200 mg/dl to start were assigned to receive a placebo or one of three formulations of mastic gum. After eight weeks, participants in one of the mastic gum groups (but not the other two) had slightly lower total cholesterol. Their average fasting blood glucose also dropped by 4.5 mg/dl.23

I know some of my readers won’t be interested in lowering cholesterol as a matter of course, and I’m with you on that. However, I’d venture to say that even most lipid hypothesis skeptics agree that oxidized LDL is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. In that vein, one in vitro study compared how well different gums and resins for preventing LDL oxidation. All the substances tested were effective to a degree, but mastic gum offered the most protection.24

Any Risks or Contraindications for Mastic Gum?

Mastic gum falls into the category of “things humans have been using for thousands of years but which haven’t been proven safe by modern standards.” The FDA doesn’t regulate it, but there’s also no evidence that it poses any hazards when used as directed. Do with that what you will.

One important thing to note is that the mastic tree is a member of the pistachio family. Anyone with a tree nut or other tree-related allergy should avoid mastic products until they check with their doctor.

Where To Buy Mastic Gum

As I said, mastic gum, oil, and capsules are readily available online and in some natural food stores. True mastic comes from Chios and is listed as a Product of Protected Designation of Origin by the EU, but imitation products still pop up. Unfortunately, it can be hard to discern what’s what, except perhaps by price. Real mastic isn’t cheap. The best you can do is look for assurances that the product comes from Chios, read reviews, and buy from a reputable retailer.

So what do you say? Are you interested in checking it out? Mastic remains a darling of some alternative health circles, although the clinical data is hardly overwhelming at this point. Try it if your goal is fresher breath, a stronger jaw, and possibly less indigestion. Don’t go replacing medicines for more serious ailments with mastic gum just yet. Still, there’s no reason not to ask your doctor about adding it to your current regimen if you’re curious.

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