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Gum Disease and Alzheimer’s: How Bad Bacteria From Your Mouth Can Affect Your Brain (and How Nutrition Can Help)

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Did you know that your mouth is home to over 6 billion bacteria? There are literally hundreds of species of oral bacteria that coexist in a balanced environment inside your mouth. Some of them are just waiting for conditions to change, so they can take over, causing tooth decay or gum disease. One species of bacteria most closely linked to gum disease is P. gingivalis—the same bacteria that is a pathogen associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

As a dental hygienist and Nutritious Life Certified health and nutrition coach, I’m passionate about teaching people how bacteria in your mouth can lead to gum disease, and possibly Alzheimer’s and what you can do to stop it—including how nutrition plays a role.

Bacteria in Your Mouth

It all starts with letting bacteria build up on your teeth. This results in gum inflammation, which causes your gums to swell and bleed easily. Plaque, or that fuzzy feeling on your teeth, is the collection of bacteria that eventually harden into tartar. It’s the tartar that can then spread underneath the gum line causing gum disease.

As the gum disease advances, your gum tissue pulls away from the tooth and forms a deep pocket, where more bacteria gather and degrade your supporting bone and ligaments.

This is where P. gingivalis comes into the picture.

What is P. gingivalis?

Porphyromonas gingivalis, or P. gingivalis, is a keystone pathogen in chronic periodontitis (AKA gum disease) and is one of several important bacterial pathogens associated with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s an opportunist gram-negative, anaerobic bacteria. This means they thrive without oxygen, leaving your gum tissue a perfect place to hide.

Gum Disease and Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s is one of the biggest mysteries in medicine. The disease often involves the accumulation of proteins called amyloid and tau in the brain, but its exact cause is still unknown.

Research, however, is showing that Alzheimer’s disease arises from defective control of these two proteins, especially amyloid, which accumulates to form large, sticky plaques in the brain. This is similar to plaque on our teeth.

A 2020 analysis led by scientists from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and reported in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, suggests that the bacteria that cause gum disease are also associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

“The analysis revealed that older adults with signs of gum disease and mouth infections at baseline were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s during the study period,” according to the NIA. “Among those 65 years or older, both Alzheimer’s diagnoses and deaths were associated with antibodies against the oral bacterium P. gingivalis, which can cluster with other bacteria such as Campylobacter rectus and Prevotella melaninogenica to further increase those risks.”

How to Prevent Gum Disease and Related Ailments

Now that we’ve established a connection between oral hygiene and Alzheimer’s disease, here’s what you should know in order to help prevent it.

1. Examine your oral hygiene.

If you have any signs of gum disease, such as bleeding, sore or swollen gums, it’s an indication that you need to reexamine your oral hygiene routine and see your dentist/dental hygienist.

2. Consider saliva testing.

Your dentist might recommend saliva testing, a new advancement in modern dentistry which can detect which particular strains of bacteria are present in your mouth and recommend a treatment plan for eradicating it. This is important not only for possibly curbing Alzheimer’s, but also for other systemic health issues related to periodontal disease, including:

  • respiratory infections
  • cardiovascular disease
  • gastrointestinal disease
  • Diabetes

3. Prevent gum disease via nutrition.

There are also ways to prevent gum disease and its progression through the food and nutrients you eat.

Eating a colorful diet full of vegetables, fruits, proteins, and healthy fats can help to reduce inflammation in the body. This works by boosting your intake of omega-3s, and other antioxidant nutrients such as vitamin E, vitamin C and beta carotene, helping your body to naturally defend itself.

Important sources of vitamin E are: grains, nuts, milk and egg yolks.

Vitamin C is mainly found in: citrus fruits, kiwi, sprouts, broccoli, tomatoes, strawberries and cabbage.

Good sources of omega-3s include: salmon, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and some plant oils.

Beta carotene can be found in: carrots, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cantaloupe and winter squash.

Support Your Oral Microbiome Just As You Would Your Gut

Just as we’re learning about the importance of maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, which has gotten a lot of the spotlight lately, it’s also crucial to support your oral microbiome. Both are important for your overall health. A diet full of nutrient-rich, good-for-you vegetables, fruits, proteins, and healthy fats will assure you’re well on your path to a healthy gut, mouth and brain.

(Image: Shutterstock)

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