Omega-3 Fatty Acids: A Key Nutrient for Healthy Gums

When you hear about omega-3 fatty acids, it’s usually in relation to heart and brain health. What you don’t hear so much about is how they also support good gum health and may even make gum disease treatment that much more effective.

But maybe that will start to change, now that a slew of new research on oral health and omega-3s have been published, confirming the nutrient’s potential in dental care.

What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Known as one of the healthy fats, omega-3s are a particular type of polyunsaturated fat that occurs in three forms: EPA and DHA, which are typically found in fatty fish and shellfish, and ALA, which is found mostly in plants.

They’re also what’s known as an essential fat, meaning your body can’t create it on its own. You have to get it through diet, supplementing as needed to make sure you get all that your body needs.

Here are some of your best dietary sources of omega-3s:

  • Mackerel
  • Salmon
  • Herring
  • Sardines
  • Anchovies
  • Caviar
  • Cod liver oil
  • Oysters
  • Flaxseed
  • Chia seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Soybeans

For ALA to be biologically helpful, it needs to be converted by the body into EPA and DHA, which isn’t an entirely efficient process. Because of that, you may get more benefit from sticking with marine sources of omega-3s – ideally, sources that are sustainable and low in mercury.

There are good resources to help guide you to the best seafood options, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sustainability guides and the National Resources Defense Council’s guide to mercury in seafood.

Improving Gum Disease Treatment with Omega-3s

The oral health benefits of omega-3s were most recently highlighted in a study published late last year in BMC Oral Health.

Thirty patients took part in this randomized clinical trial, all of whom had periodontitis, the advanced, severe form of gum disease in which the infection destroys both gum tissue and bone. As the disease progresses and the teeth have less healthy tissue supporting them, they start to loosen in their sockets. The end result is tooth loss.

The main way gum disease is diagnosed is by this loss of support. Called “clinical attachment loss” (CAL), it’s a thinning and weakening of the tissues that secure the teeth to the jawbone. We can also measure disease severity through things like whether the gums bleed easily (bleeding upon probing, or BOP) and the depth of space between tooth and gum (pocket depth, or PD). The deeper the pocket, the deeper the infection.

The 30 patients in this study were randomly assigned to one of two groups. At the start of the study, all underwent periodontal exams and “deep cleanings” (scaling and root planing, or SRP). Afterwards, the test group took daily fish oil supplements, while the control group took a placebo.

All were examined again after three months. All showed signs of improvement. However, those in the fish oil group had significantly more improvement: shallower pockets and better clinical attachment.

“Omega-3 supplementation as an adjunct to non-surgical periodontal therapy,” the research team concluded,

significantly improved the clinical parameters in periodontitis patients compared to soybean oil supplements.

Significantly, multiple scientific reviews published last year reached the same conclusion: Patients with a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids got more benefit from SRP than those who had SRP alone.

Does the Source of Omega-3s Matter to Gum Health?

All this raises an intriguing question: Does it matter if you get the omega-3s directly from food sources or from supplements? Is one source better than the other for oral health? That was the focus of one more recent scientific review, which focused on studies published between 2010 and 2020.

A search of three major databases of medical research turned up 13 studies that met the authors’ criteria. All were randomized controlled trials. Two of the 13 focused on diet, while the rest focused on supplementation.

Analysis showed that, regardless of their source, a higher intake of omega-3s meant better periodontal health: shallower pockets, better attachment, and less bleeding on probing.

This study suggests that supplemental or dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids for the treatment of periodontitis may have a positive impact on the disease.

That said, there’s one thing that’s vital to remember: It’s not just single nutrients but the whole diet that matters. The takeaway is that the whole diet for good oral health is one that includes omega-3 among all the other vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals needed to keep your smile healthy and whole for a lifetime.