by Craig Weatherby
Seafood, it seems, may be very good for our gums.
Animal studies show clear benefits, and according to an analysis of U.S. health data, people who consume more omega-3 fatty acids enjoy lower rates of inflammatory gum disease (periodontitis).
In particular, the study linked moderate intake of fish-derived omega-3 DHA to a 20 percent reduced rate of periodontitis.
Periodontitis is a common, chronic inflammatory disease characterized by gum tissue separation from the tooth—the so-called periodontal “pockets” that can lead to bone and tooth loss.
Traditional therapies focus on fighting the initial bacterial infection and removing diseased tissue.
But more recent therapies target the body's excessive, prolonged inflammatory response to the infection, which is thought to play an important role in the progress of periodontitis.
As the researchers—led by Dr. Asghar Naqvi of Harvard Medical School—wrote, “To date, the treatment of periodontitis has primarily involved mechanical cleaning and local antibiotic application. Thus, a dietary therapy [such as omega-3s], if effective, might be a less expensive and safer method for the prevention and treatment of periodontitis.”
And they added an important note about dosing: “Our results also suggest that DHA ([taken in] doses recommended by the American Heart Association…) may be as or more potent in influencing periodontitis.”
The daily dose of EPA+DHA recommended by the AHA is 500 mg, which is easily achievable by eating fatty fish or taking fish oil capsules.
Omega-3 gum benefits seen in mice
A number of studies in rodents show that omega-3s exert anti-inflammatory effects on gum disease, reduce inflammation-associated bone loss in the jaw, and generally aid the healing process (Vardar S et al. 2004; Kesavalu L et al. 207; Vardar-Sengul S et al. 2008; El-Sharkawy H et al. 2010).
Taking things to a higher level, a rodent study published last year detected possible anti-bacterial effects of omega-3s, extending their gum-protecting potential beyond inflammation control (Bendyk A et al. 2009).
And earlier this year, researchers from the University of Kentucky confirmed those indications when they found that relatively low doses of omega-3 EPA and DHA inhibited the growth of bacteria that cause gum disease (Huang CB, Ebersole JL 2010).
The Kentucky team also found benefits when mice were fed the plant-source omega-3 ALA found in walnuts, flax, canola oil, and leafy cooking greens.
That study was the first to clearly demonstrate that omega-3s probably exert an anti-bacterial effect against oral pathogens.
New analysis links omega-3s to reduced gum risk in people
Dr Naqvi and his colleagues studied data from 9,182 adults aged 20 years and older who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 1999 and 2004.
They found that the rate of gum disease was 20 percent lower in the people who reported consuming the most dietary DHA… with those omega-3 DHA intakes being estimated from their reported consumption of seafood and omega-3 supplements.
The risk reduction associated with omega-3 EPA was smaller but still significant, while no statistically significant disease-risk reduction was found in relation to the omega-6 fatty acid (LA) that dominates the American diet.
In an accompanying commentary, Prof. Elizabeth Krall Kaye of Boston University said that the findings “…of a protective association between higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids and periodontal disease are well-founded” (Kaye EK 2010).
She stated that the significantly reduced odds of periodontal disease were observed at relatively modest intakes of DHA and EPA, and the suggestion of a minimum effective dose was particularly noteworthy.
“These findings are encouraging in that they suggest it may be possible to attain clinically meaningful benefits for periodontal disease at modest levels of omega-3 fatty acid intakes from foods,” added Professor Kaye.
The authors noted that the nature of their study only permits the detection of associations, and not a cause-effect relationship.
But, as they wrote, “Given the evidence indicating a role for n-3 fatty acids in other chronic inflammatory conditions, it is possible that treating periodontitis with n-3 fatty acids could have the added benefit of preventing other chronic diseases associated with inflammation,” stated the researchers.
They added that clinical studies are needed to confirm the potential protective effects of omega-3 DHA and EPA on periodontitis.
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