The Surprising Way to Protect Your Brain Against Invading Bacteria

Dr. Janet Zand

March 13, 2020

Did you know that keeping one particular area of your skin healthy could actually help protect your brain too? And you don’t even have to use SPF to do it. 

Gut bacteria have been stealing the spotlight over the past few years. But that’s not the only place bacteria lurk in your body. And ignoring these invisible invaders can mean bad news for your appearance – and your mental acuity.

Long before harmful bacteria reach the gut or other parts of the body, some take up residence in your mouth. Of course, you know that bacteria are major contributors to gum disease. And we know that gum bacteria lead to poor teeth and even heart issues. But new research is showing that’s not all they do. In fact, as these bacteria invade the body, they can lead to a number of other diseases and conditions, including memory problems.

Fortunately, the way these bacteria function leaves them vulnerable to attack. So you can get on the offensive before they get out of control.

The particular strain researchers are worried about is Porphyromonas gingivalis. It’s the source of periodontitis. And researchers have found it in the brains of patients with significant memory loss. But until recently, they weren’t sure whether this discovery was a big deal.

How Important Is Bacteria?

Early last year, researchers presented evidence that it is indeed a big deal. These bacteria may help drive the progression of memory loss. The study found that patients who are losing their memory have higher levels of P. gingivalis – and the toxins it creates, called gingipains.

The researchers used mice to determine that P. gingivalis can indeed move from the mouth to the brain. But they also found something else important. Chemicals that block gingipains can help stop this movement.

This is an important discovery for companies looking for new drugs to prevent memory loss. Such a drug could be much more effective and safer than antibiotics. It would focus just on the toxins rather than wiping out all bacteria indiscriminately – including friendly ones. And it would mean one less contributor to antibiotic resistance. But of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, particularly when it comes to memory disorders.

Of course, before P. gingivalis can get to the brain, it has to a get a foothold in the mouth. This commonly begins when we’re teens. In fact, about 20% of people under the age of 30 have low levels of P. gingivalis in their gums.

If these levels stay low, they don’t seem to be a problem. But if they get out of control, the situation can escalate quickly. High levels trigger inflammation, redness, swelling, and bleeding gums. Eventually, the gum tissue can begin to erode. This is neither pleasant nor attractive.

Once levels rise this much, just chewing or brushing your teeth can be enough to move harmful bacteria into your bloodstream – and your brain. Plus, P. gingivalis can begin to “recruit” even neutral bacteria in the mouth to act in ways that provoke an immune response. This leads to even more inflammation.

Clearly, it’s important to keep these bacteria under control.

How to Protect Yourself

Basic oral hygiene is the first place to start. Hopefully, you brush your teeth regularly. You should be flossing as well. I know that step is easier to skip. But maybe this information is enough to convince you to do it regularly. By regularly, I mean every day – not just for a couple days before you visit the dentist! And yes, you should be vising the dentist for a full cleaning at least twice a year.

However, now that you know about the dangers of these bacteria, you may be wondering if there’s more you can do to protect yourself. Good news! There are some additional actions you can take to protect your brain – and your smile – from invasion.

One action probably won’t surprise you if you’re at all interested in natural approaches to personal care. Yes, you can use essential oils to improve your oral hygiene. In fact, a review published in the Journal of Periodontology suggests this might be a good idea.

You probably know that essential oils have been growing in popularity. They are a natural way to do everything from ease headaches to relieve stress to speed up childbirth. Well, this review found something else they can do: reduce your risk of gum disease. Several studies found that essential oil mouth rinses reduced both gingival inflammation and plaque as well as or better than a control or a placebo.

The review study looked at 11 randomized control trials that included adult subjects with gingivitis, but without severe periodontal problems. The subjects used essential oil-based mouth rinses twice a day for 30 seconds in addition to brushing their teeth.

The studies compared the rinses to a variety of controls, including 5% hydroalcohol mouthwash and dental floss. All the studies lasted for six to nine months.

The studies repeatedly found benefit to using the essential oil mouthwash. It reduced plaque, inflammation, and bleeding. This is a great addition to your oral care routine.

But notice I said addition. This shouldn’t replace regular brushing and flossing! Just like the skin on your face, your gums need regular attention to stay healthy and free from inflammation and disease.

Other Quick Tips

Here are some other quick tips that can help you keep your gums in great shape:

• You can use a Waterpik and add a drop of any of your favorite essential oils for the gums – peppermint or tea tree oil.

• One very effective oral rinse is 1 teaspoon of baking soda mixed with 2 tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide and 4 ounces of water. Make a small jar of this and rinse twice a day. Use this recipe a couple of times a month.

• Also consider using an over-the-counter mouthwash, such as Therabreath.

• It is good to rotate strategies when it comes to your gums. So you don’t have to do these every day. Rotate them into your routine and you’ll see much healthier gums.

Ways to Reduce Harmful Inflammation

If you do have a buildup of harmful bacteria, you’ll need to employ some additional strategies. You need to clear out not just the bacteria and the plaque but the inflammation as well. Fortunately, there's a great way to do that naturally: through polyphenols, nature's powerful antioxidants.

In the past few years, a number of studies have indicated that polyphenols can help improve gum disease. For one such study, researchers evaluated whether consuming bilberries could help control inflammation of the gums in patients with gum disease.

You may be less familiar with bilberries than, say, raspberries or blueberries. They're more common in Europe and Asia than they are in the U.S. But as you might guess from the name, they are closely related to blueberries. And like blueberries, bilberries are full of polyphenols.

The researchers conducted this study in Sweden, where bilberries are abundant. The researchers divided 24 patients with gum disease into three groups. The first group ate a placebo of potato starch for seven days. The second group consumed 250 g of bilberries. The third group consumed 500 g of bilberries. The researchers also compared the three groups to a fourth group who only received instruction in how to care for their gums.

All the groups did show some improvement in gum health. But the group consuming 500 g of bilberries fared the best. They had a 59% reduction in gum bleeding after seven days. Their cytokines levels also improved, indicating that inflammation was decreasing.

These results are in line with what I've seen clinically. We know that polyphenols help reduce inflammation. But in this case, it was important not just that the patients ingested the polyphenols but that they actually ate the whole berries, exposing their gums directly to the polyphenols. You may experience similar results by eating whole berries, as well as by giving oil pulling a try.

Two More Simple Methods

Oil pulling is quite simple and very effective. Use a high-quality sesame, coconut, or olive oil and swish it around in your mouth for a few minutes before spitting it out. This will expose your gums to the polyphenols in the oil. You can do the same with green tea or, if you prefer, just drink the green tea as usual. This will still expose your gums to the polyphenols in the tea.

You know that drinking a cup of green tea is one of my favorite things to do for my health. And I love eating berries too. And to further protect my gums, I can add in one more thing I love: citrus fruits.

Yes, the stories you hear about sailors suffering from scurvy before they learned to travel with citrus are true. Citrus fruits helped save their lives, and they can help your gums too.

The reason that sailors' gums wasted away when they didn't have any vitamin C was that without it, their bodies couldn't make sufficient collagen. Collagen helps anchor the teeth in the gums. Of course, collagen helps your skin stay firm and structurally sound too.

As you know, if you want youthful-looking skin and healthy gums, you need to maintain your collagen production as you age. Vitamin C can help you do that. And even better, published research indicates that it can help you reverse DNA damage, which causes skin aging and other chronic conditions throughout the body.

Your gums may not be an area you give a lot of thought to. But if you run into problems, you’ll realize just how much this small area of skin means to you. Healthy habits in this area can pay off in truly significant ways. Sure, you have to remember to floss. But if you make it a habit, you’ll help protect your brain for all the other much more exciting things you’d like to remember along the way.

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