By Maureen Williams, ND
It should come as no surprise to find that what we put in our mouths can affect the health of our mouths, as well as the rest of our bodies. A new study highlights this truth, finding that people who eat a diet rich in omega-3 fats from fish have less gum disease than people who don’t.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, used data from a large ongoing survey called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). It included information gathered from the dental examinations of over 9,000 participants.
Fish fats protect gums
The researchers found that eating a diet that provides polyunsaturated fatty acids had an impact on gum (periodontal) health:
- People with the most dietary DHA (docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid found primarily in fish oil) were 20% less likely to have gum disease than people with the least dietary DHA.
- People with higher intake of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid, another omega-3 fatty acid from fish oil) also had lower incidence of gum disease.
- High intake of alpha-linolenic acid (the omega-3 fatty acid found primarily in vegetable oils) was also associated with lower gum disease risk, but the difference was not statistically significant.
A commentary published in the same issue points out three major findings of the study:
- A significantly reduced risk of gum disease was seen in people with modest dietary intakes of DHA (about 280 mg per week) and EPA (about 70 mg per week).
- There appears to be a threshold, such that people with very high intakes of the omega-3 fats had the same gum disease risk reduction as people with more modest intake.
- Taking DHA and EPA supplements was not necessary to experience the full benefit of these fatty acids.
Gums: a window to the heart
It may be no coincidence that omega-3 fatty acids from fish have now been found to benefit both gums and heart, since maintaining healthy gums is one of the keys to general health. Researchers have found that people with gum disease are almost twice as likely to suffer from coronary artery disease as those without gum disease, and some studies indicate that there might be a relationship between gum disease and stroke.
“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 cardiovascular disease,” commented lead study author Asghar Naqvi, MPH, MNS, of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
Eat your way to healthy gums
The results of this study suggest that you can easily eat enough omega-3 fats to avoid gum disease:
- DHA and EPA are found primarily in fish fats, so, help yourself to some fish every week. A 2-ounce serving of wild salmon, halibut, or bluefin or albacore tuna once or twice a week will provide all of the omega-3 fats you need to have healthy gums.
- Water-packed canned fish like tuna, sardines, herring, and mackerel are also rich in these fatty acids, and may be easier and less expensive alternatives to fresh or frozen fish.
- Beef from grass-fed cows and eggs from chickens whose grain is supplemented with flax meal provide some DHA and EPA.
- It is possible that non-fish eaters might achieve some level of gum disease protection from the alpha-linolenic acid found in many plant oils. Flaxseed, hemp seed, walnut, and soybean oils are good sources of ALA, small amounts of which are converted to DHA and EPA in the body. (J Am Diet Assoc 2010;110:1669–75)
Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice on Cortes Island in British Columbia, Canada, and has done extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.