Periodontitis is an extremely common, and often painful, inflammatory disease of the gums. It causes tissue to separate from teeth, resulting in the accumulation of bacteria and potential bone and tooth loss. Mainstream medicine typically treats the chronic disease with strong antibiotics, vigorous mechanical scraping of the teeth and even surgically cutting away diseased gum tissue. But a new study just published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association shows there’s a natural way to not only prevent and also treat periodontitis — consume polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), especially the omega-3s found in cold water fish like salmon and certain nuts.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School, the Harvard School of Public Health and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center pointed out that PUFAs such as those found in fish oil and some nuts are known to have anti-inflammatory properties and that could explain some of their power in fighting gum disease. Bottom line: the scientists discovered that the higher the intake of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly those known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), the lower the incidence of periodontitis in the US population.
“To date, the treatment of periodontitis has primarily involved mechanical cleaning and local antibiotic application. Thus, a dietary therapy, if effective, might be a less expensive and safer method for the prevention and treatment of periodontitis,” Asghar Z. Naqvi, MPH, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Department of Medicine said in a press statement. “Given the evidence indicating a role for omega-3 fatty acids in other chronic inflammatory conditions, it is possible that treating periodontitis with omega-3 fatty acids could have the added benefit of preventing other chronic diseases associated with inflammation, including stroke as well.”
Naqvi and his team studied data from over 9,000 adults who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The research participants all received dental examinations between 1999 and 2004 and also kept track of their diets and use of supplements such as fish oil. The NHANES study collected extensive demographic, ethnic, educational and socioeconomic data, as well. That permitted the researchers to see if there were any other factors that might cloud the results.
Overall, about 8.2 percent of the research subjects had periodontitis — but for those with the highest consumption of DHA, there was a 20 percent reduction in gum disease. Participants with a higher consumption of EPA had a slightly smaller reduction in gum disease. According to Elizabeth Krall Kaye, PhD, a professor in Boston University’s Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine, who wrote an editorial which accompanied the periodontitis study, a major finding of the new research is the fact significantly reduced odds of periodontal disease were achieved in people who only consumed very modest amounts DHA and EPA. That raises the question of whether higher, optimal doses of omega-3s might have an even more dramatic protective and therapeutic effect.
The new study backs up similar findings in animals. For example, earlier this year, University of Kentucky scientists also found that relatively low doses of omega-3s put the brakes on the growth of gum disease-causing bacteria in mice. That was the first study that clearly showed omega-3s appear to have a direct anti-bacterial effect on oral pathogens.