We know by now that many viruses first enter the body through the mouth, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
But not only is the mouth a gateway for viral invaders, maintaining good oral health can go a long way in helping your body fend them off.
However, it hasn’t been clear exactly how keeping your mouth healthy helped increase protection against viral infection — until now…
Defend against gum disease, defend against viruses
Researchers have uncovered how the proteins produced by oral epithelial cells protect humans against the growth of viruses that enter the body through the mouth. In the process, they also discovered the same oral bacteria that cause periodontal disease can suppress the release of these proteins, leaving us increasingly vulnerable to infection.
According to the research, production and effectiveness of these protective proteins, known as interferon lambdas, can be reduced by the oral bacterium Porphyromonas gingivalis, which causes periodontal (gum) disease.
“Our studies identified certain pathogenic bacterial species, P. gingivalis,which cause periodontal disease, can completely suppress interferon production and severely enhance susceptibility to viral infection,” says Juhi Bagaitkar, assistant professor in the University of Louisville Department of Oral Immunology and Infectious Disease. “These resident oral plaque bacteria play a key role in regulating antiviral responses.”
Viruses that infect the lungs and gastrointestinal tract often enter the body through the mouth. Some of these viruses include the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), herpes simplex, human papillomavirus (HPV) and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
In addition to causing gum disease, P. gingivalis has been linked to several diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, kidney disease and rheumatoid arthritis. And studies have shown that periodontitis can lead to immune suppression, increasing susceptibility to viruses like HIV, herpes simplex and HPV.
The researchers plan to continue to improve their understanding of how interferon lambdas protect people from viruses, as well as how P. gingivalis compromises that protection. Through these efforts, they hope to come up with clinical approaches to support the protection provided by the interferon proteins.
How to fight off P. gingivalis and boost your oral microbiome
As we’ve noted in earlier issues, keeping good oral health comes down to following your dentist’s advice. Brush your teeth at least twice a day, floss once a day and visit the dentist twice a year for a cleaning.
If you want to reinforce your protection against P. gingivalis, there are some additional actions you can take:
- Using a therapeutic oral rinse can help reduce the amount of plaque and bacteria in your mouth. And as a bonus, studies have linked oral rinses to the deactivation of SARS-CoV-2.
- Eating fewer processed and high-sugar foods will help discourage the formation of harmful oral bacteria that feed on these foods.
- Taking a probiotic specifically formulated for the oral microbiome can help ramp up your defense against P. gingivalis and other harmful bacteria. Look for one containing BLIS K12 (Streptococcus salivarius), a strain that can help protect against inflammation and strengthen the immune system.
- Beetroot juice can alter the oral microbiome for better in a little as 10 days, according to research from the University of Exeter.
UofL researchers reveal how oral bacteria suppress protection against viral growth — University of Louisville School of Dentistry
How Your Oral Health Affects Your Immune System — Dodds Dental