You must know your enemy before you can defeat it.

(Hold on to your butts, this is about to get sciency)

According to a 2009 paper in the Journal of the American Dental Association, it’s not bacterial, or viral, or the toothpaste you use or the foods you eat, or any number of other explanations you’ve heard over the years. It’s actually your immune system… getting a little bit agro.

You see, among the many responses in your immune system when you get a trauma, one group of cells, called macrophages, produce a number of messenger proteins called cytokines (yeah, I know, don’t worry. This will all make sense).

Tumor Necrosis Factor

TNF-alpha (The Enemy)

One type of cytokine is a protein called tumor necrosis factor alpha, or TNF-α, and it has an interesting job. It kills all the damaged cells around a trauma. Say, if you cut your finger with a knife blade, TNF-α hoofs it to the scene of the crime and starts wiping out any cells that might have been damaged by that knife. The scientific term is apoptosis, and it’s part of what causes inflammation.

Why on Earth would your body kill it’s own cells, you might be wondering? Well, it’s actually very important. Because if a cell gets damaged, even if it heals itself, the DNA inside could be damaged. And then the cell would reproduce and create 2 cells with damaged DNA, then 4, then 8, and so on. This could lead to all kinds of tumors and cancers.

But TNF-α makes sure all the cells that continue on are healthy and prevents tumors from happening. Hence the name: tumor necrosis factor.

It’s a good thing to have. But as they say, you can have too much of a good thing.

Which is exactly the issue with canker sore sufferers. Any time there’s a trauma in your mouth (which the inside of your mouth is always getting tiny microtraumas in the mucosa), the immune system sends WAY too much TNF-α into the fight. And instead of just wiping out the injured cells, they keep going, popping cells left and right until a crater forms. And there’s your ulcer.

Because people’s hormones fluctuate, sometimes your body overproduces and sometimes it doesn’t. But studies have shown that an overproduction of TNF-α often coincides with a deficiency in a type of vitamin called Cobalamin – also known as B12.


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