The Julian Center for Comprehensive Dentistry is named in honor of a man who gave me many years of support and inspiration: my father. Sadly, he’s gone now, having died a few years ago of a sudden heart attack while sitting at his kitchen table. But every day I honor his memory in the work I do. That includes helping patients understand the link between oral health and heart health.

Three weeks prior to my father’s passing, I had performed a root canal on him. That time frame is significant because there is more than meets the eye when it comes to root canal procedures.

Every year, some 25 million Americans undergo root canal therapy in an effort to save a tooth that has died.” Root canals are common procedures performed by general dentists and endodontists (root canal specialists). The procedure removes dead nerve tissue” from inside the tooth and replaces it with a filling material. Most of the time, that resolves any obvious infection and eliminates pain without complications.

But the tooth has microcanals that go into the body, and the infection from the tooth can travel through those microcanals into the bloodstream. So, while it may seem preferable to perform a root canal to leave a dead tooth in place, and then crown that tooth to prevent further damage to it, the reality is that a dead tooth can never be completely sterilized. No amount of sterilization can kill all the bacteria, fungus, and viruses in that tooth, and there’s a risk of those being released into the bloodstream every time you bite down. And since there is no blood supply to an embalmed tooth, then there is no opportunity for the body’s immune system to provide protection from potential harm.

So, what’s the significance of the time between my father’s root canal and his heart attack? Well, the body’s immune system recycles about every seven, 14, or 21 days. Having fillings placed or removed, even in the most pristine and protected environments, causes the immune system to send out white blood cells to combat what it views as an assault on the system. About seven days later, all those newly born, combative white bloods cells die at the same time. That can leave the body a little vulnerable. An assault on the body in the form of a dental treatment occurring during one of those cell-regeneration cycles—when the immune system is vulnerable—can cause brief, flu-like symptoms. In fact, any challenge to an already compromised immune system on day seven, 14, or 21 can produce a severe reaction or acute health issue.

Admittedly, my father had some health issues, including what I now suspect was sleep apnea. Although he was a chronic snorer, he was never evaluated by a sleep professional. My clinical interpretation at the time of his death was that the chronic stress put on his heart from reduced oxygen caused by sleep-disordered breathing was pushed to the brink by that root canal performed on day 21.

Now I know about the cumulative effect of procedures done on the body. Although I no longer personally perform root canals, the Julian Center accounts for a patient’s many body systems, health history, and other health factors when performing any root canal. That’s part of the work that we do every day to honor my father’s memory.