Yes, Canker Sores Prevented (and Cured) by Omega-3

Here is a comment left on my earlier canker-sore post by a reader named Ted:

I found out quite by accident WALNUTS get rid of [canker sores] quite quickly. The first sign of an ulcer I chew walnuts and leave the paste in my mouth for a little while (30 seconds or so).

The first time was by accident, my ulcers disappeared so quickly I knew it had to be something I ate. And the only thing I had eaten differently the past day was walnuts.

Flaxseed oil and walnuts differ in lots of ways but both are high in omega-3. My gums got much better around the time I started taking flaxseed oil. I neither noticed nor expected this; my dentist pointed it out. Several others have told me the same thing. Tyler Cowen’s gums got dramatically better. One reader started and stopped and restarted flaxseed oil, making it blindingly clear that the gum improvement is caused by flaxseed oil. There is plenty of reason to think the human diet was once much higher in omega-3. All this together convinces me that omega-3 can both prevent and cure canker sores. Not only that, I’m also convinced that canker sores are a sign of omega-3 deficiency. You shouldn’t just get rid of them with walnuts; you should change your diet. Omega-3 has other benefits (better brain function, less inflammation, probably others).

Let’s say I’m right about this — canker sores really are prevented and cured by omega-3. Then there are several things to notice.

1. Web facilitation. It was made possible by the internet. My initial interest in flaxseed oil came from reading the Shangri-La Diet forums. I didn’t have to read a single book about the Aquatic Ape theory; I could learn enough online. Tyler Cowen’s experience was in his blog. Eric Vlemmix contacted me by email. No special website was involved.

2. Value of self-experimentation. My flaxseed oil self-experimentation played a big part, although it had nothing to do with mouth health. These experiments showed dramatic benefits — so large and fast that something in flaxseed oil, presumably omega-3, had to be a necessary nutrient. Because of these results, I blogged about omega-3 a lot, which is why Eric emailed me about his experience.

3. Unconventional evidence. All the evidence here, not just the self-experimentation, is what advocates of evidence-based medicine and other evidence snobs criticize. Much of it is anecdotal. Yet the evidence snobs have, in this case, nothing to show for their snobbery. They missed this conclusion completely. Nor do you need a double-blind study to verify/test this conclusion. If you have canker sores, you simply drink flaxseed oil or eat walnuts and see if they go away. Maybe this omnipresent evidence snobbery is . . . completely wrong? Maybe this has something to do with the stagnation in health research?

4. Lack of credentials. No one involved with this conclusion is a nutrition professor or dentist or medical doctor, as far as I know. Apparently you don’t need proper credentials to figure out important things about health. Of course, we’ve been here before: Jane Jacobs, Elaine Morgan.

5. Failure of “trusted” health websites. Health websites you might think you could trust missed this completely. The Mayo Clinic website lists 15 possible causes — none of them involving omega-3. (Some of them, we can now see, are correlates of canker sores, also caused by lack of omega-3.) If canker sores can be cured with walnuts, the Mayo list of treatments reads like a list of scurvy cures from the Middle Ages. The Harvard Medical School health website is even worse. “Keep in mind that up to half of all adults have experienced canker sores at least once,” it says. This is supposed to reassure you. Surely something this common couldn’t be a serious problem.

6. Failure of the healthcare establishment. Even worse, the entire healthcare establishment, with its vast resources, hasn’t managed to figure this out. Canker sores are not considered a major health problem, no, but, if I’m right, that too is a mistake. They are certainly common. If they indicate an important nutritional deficiency (too little omega-3), they become very important and their high prevalence is a major health problem.

21 Responses to “Yes, Canker Sores Prevented (and Cured) by Omega-3”

  1. Eric Vlemmix Says:

    Great to see there are a number of other people with the same experience as I had! Our doctor never had a real answer, and I always ended up with covering the sores with some gel, trying some items normally used for a sore troath to have less pain, and things like that, but never a way to remove the cause of it. Now, for some others and me, it seems that by getting more omega-3 (resulting in a better ratio of omega-3:omega-6) it’s possible not only to treat, but more importantly, do something about the cause.

    Indeed, self-experimentation can bring you some good insights. I wasn’t looking for a cure for canker sores, but I started with a diet, SLD, I became more interested in fats, nutricion, and links with conorary heart disease, and suddenly I realized that canker sores are no longer a real issue for me anymore. Serendipity!

    Bring in the Internet to connect to some other people with the same interest/activities. And yes, I could communicate this experience/theory without being ridiculed because I do not have a medical education/profession.

    Seth, canker sores might indeed be a sign of omega-3 deficiency, just as impotence in some cases is a sign that you might have (higer risk of) coronary heart disease (http://www.reuters.com/article/rbssHealthcareNews/idUSLL14374620081021), but in case of these sores, some people are warned 10′s of years before the real problems start (chonic omega-3 deficiency -> chonic inflammation -> plaque in the arteries -> failure of coronary circulation -> heart failure)

  2. Gerry Says:

    The Oregonian newspaper ran an article today by Leslie Kaufman ( NY Times) on an experiment in Vermont to reduce cow-produced methane by changing the cow’s diet. They are replacing soy and corn with more alfalfa and flaxseed to “mimic the spring grasses that the animals evolved long ago to eat”. Stonyfield Farm is involved in the study. To quote further,” The answer, the scientists determined, was that spring grasses are high in Omega-3 fatty acids which may help the cow’s digestive tract operate smoothly.” The cows were reported to produce less methane and are more robust. Also noted was that “Corn and soy, the feed that thanks to postwar government aid, became dominant in the dairy industry, has a completely different type of fatty acid structure.”
    Flaxseed saves the world from climate change???

  3. Dennis Mangan Says:

    My self-experimentation – well, it wasn’t on myself – is getting published!

    http://mangans.blogspot.com/2009/05/my-letter-in-medical-hypotheses.html

    Also, it seems that all of Seth’s points above apply to my experience.

  4. seth Says:

    Congratulations, Dennis. The original post is here:

    http://mangans.blogspot.com/2009/05/niacin-for-restless-legs.html

  5. Nathan Myers Says:

    It’s a huge leap of faith to conclude from success with walnuts that it is the omega-3 oils in them that are responsible. Walnuts contain hundreds of compounds, many oily or oil-soluble, many not. While it’s just possible that the omega-3 oil is responsible, that’s not the way to bet. Thousands of people have been taking omega-3-rich oil every day, and nobody else has reported instant relief of canker sores. Anyway, walnut oil isn’t especially rich in omega-3 oil, and omega-3 is only a description, not a chemical. Lots of different oily compounds, with various metabolic effects, are omega-3.

    The same may be said of tannins, another component noted in walnuts. “Tannin” describes a property, not a specific chemical.

    We can start by testing whether walnut flour alone, or walnut oil alone, provides such instant relief, and whether walnuts help anybody else besides Ted. Maybe Ted’s just lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you count such things).

    I’ve had many fewer canker sores since I began avoiding oranges, and my sinuses have stopped bleeding since I began avoiding onions. I’ve tested both of these connections pretty thoroughly, not to say painfully.

  6. seth Says:

    Nathan, it’s not just the success with walnuts that leads me to my conclusion. It’s all the other data I listed as well. E.g., Tyler Cowen’s experience. I should have listed something else as well: evidence that omega-3 is used to make an anti-inflammatory signalling molecule. In any case, look on the bright side: if walnuts cure/prevent canker sores, that’s great to know regardless of the crucial ingredient in walnuts. All the other evidence I cited says that this observation makes sense. Is unlikely to be limited to Ted.

  7. Willy Says:

    An interesting article:
    Omega fatty acid balance can alter immunity and gene expression
    “This study demonstrates, for the first time in humans, that large changes in gene expression are likely an important mechanism by which these omega fatty acids exert their potent clinical effects.”
    http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-05/asfb-ofa052909.php

  8. Paul Says:

    I had suffered bouts of painful canker sore outbreaks several times a year before switching to a non sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) toothpaste. This was really the defining change since I did not appreciably change my diet at the same time. I have also reintroduced canker sour outbreaks since then with only a few uses of the old SLS toothpaste.

  9. bennetta Says:

    I believe this may affect the theory I posted about before regarding the Eskimo diet, Atkins, and bad breath. The Atkins diet is infamous for causing bad breath and body odor. The Eskimo diet is very similar to Atkins, but with one exception- they eat a lot of rotten fish. Eskimos do not have bad breath.

    A lot of that rotten fish, however, is salmon, a fish rich in omega 3. So is it the omega 3, the priobiotics, or both, that keeps them from having bad breath?

    I’d also be interested to see if canker sores and inflamed gums are common in the Eskimo population.

  10. Gian Says:

    Seth,
    Did you reduce our intake of omega-6 oils as well?.

  11. gallier2 Says:

    @bennetta

    the bad breath on Atkins is normally transient. It happens when the metabolism switches from mainly glucose to ketone “burning”. As long as not all enzymes are up to their task, the surplus of ketones (mainly acetone) will be discarded in the lungs, thus the strange odour and the metallic taste in the mouth. You can experience the same odour on long time fasting or on long term alcoholics.
    When your body is adapted to the fat metabolism (like the eskimos) you will no longer smell.

  12. Ted Says:

    Nathan, I would add that oranges and citrus definitely aggravate any canker sore I had, sometimes turning them into raging sores. But I could drink/eat citrus during the time I didn’t have sores. I’ve never noticed any reaction positive or negative from onions to the sores.

    I also noticed high salt items might bring on the sores. Although once again, I was able to eat pretzels and stuff without problems often.

    In my youth and 20s, I probably never ate fish or any omega-3 rich foods very much.

    It’s only recently that I’ve started to try to eat with more intention.

  13. Nathan Myers Says:

    Ted: I got canker sores from orange because I’m allergic to orange. Excess walnuts, for me, bring on cold sores. I would be pleased to find that it is something in the oil that alleviates canker sores, as I happen to know it’s something in the walnut protein (as in other nuts, and in peanuts) that brings on cold sores: excess arginine. However, another correspondent noted that black tea soothed his canker sores, which hints that the tannins may be important.

    I would not be at all surprised to find that preventing canker sores involved entirely different chemicals than those involved in alleviating pain and speeding healing. I would also not be surprised to find that certain omega-3 oils are deadly toxic, or metabolically useless. My experience with flaxseed oil, in particular, though, is that since I began taking it more or less regularly I have reduced my waistline and added upper-body muscle mass.

  14. Heidi Says:

    hi everyone,
    my daughter (18 yrs) has chronic acute cankers and has for years. This means that every month she has a mouth full – and sometimes on the outside of the mouth. They are large (size of the end of your baby finger) and occur in all places in the mouth, gums and throat. We have tried for years to find and try remedies from the tooth paste, washes, prescriptions etc. but it is useless. She has had minimal and inconsistent results at best from home remedies. The medical community is baffled by cankers and it is frustrating – they don’t take it too seriously even when they see that my daughter often can’t speak or eat and her lips are so swollen because of cankers she looks like she has been in a fight. Most people can hardly tolerate the pain of one or two – she never has less than 10 and doesn’t even register pain for an average sized one. This is hardship for a teenager who is concerned about appearances as well. Anyway, I am going to try this flaxseed and walnut oil and let you know if there is any improvement.

    A polite note to the posters above referring to the ‘eskimos’. They actually call themselves “Inuit” and eat raw fish and seal as well as caribou etc. I don’t think they eat rotten fish or meat – or at least I have never heard of that and many of my family have travelled to the north and Arctic areas and never observed this either. Most of their food is kept frozen out of doors which is easy to do in the Arctic!

    thanks for the discussion.
    Heidi in Canada

  15. seth Says:

    Heidi in Canada,

    I would like to know what happens in either case — whether there is improvement or not in your daughter’s canker sores. Either result — improvement or no improvement — would be very interesting!

    As for the Inuit, they certainly do or at least did eat rotten fish. See

    http://www.blog.sethroberts.net/2009/03/26/what-did-eskimos-eat/

    http://www.blog.sethroberts.net/2009/01/26/the-inuit-paradox/

  16. Eric Says:

    Heidi, I am also very interested in your findings. It’s a pity that I can not really specify how many weeks/months I used flaxoil and fishoil before I noticed a change. Only after some months I suddenly realized that I did not have had any serious sores for quite some time, as I also had huge sores before that hindered my speech and swallowing foods.

    Just leave a message here and inform Seth please.

    Good Luck!

  17. andrea Says:

    Heidi, Seth and friends!
    Omega 6: Omega3 ratio’s imbalance is another facet of the condition.Too much omega six (for example a diet based on olive oil, canola oil, eggs, lamb, poultry and some beef) can really create a serious imbalance and generate inflammation (joints and mucous lining) + depression + anxiety + canker sores (lots).
    One word for your (and my tests): fish oil omega 3 is more potent than flaxseed oil. Search wiki for Omega3 and minami nutrition for omega3 (moreEPA)
    I am testing that now!

  18. Liza Glazner Says:

    I have had an ongoing problem with canker sores my entire life. I began taking flaxseed oil a few months ago with no knowledge that it may prevent canker sores. Just recently, however, I got out of the routine of taking the flaxseed oil. I have had a canker sore every day for the past three weeks. When one goes away, a new one pops up in a different place. I am going to start taking the flaxseed oil again and see if the pattern changes.

  19. Gina Says:

    Hello to all,
    I’m also suffering from canker sore all my life that’s why I found this site cause am so desperate to know how to prevent and cure this sickness and I tried so many medicines prescribed by Dr. and over the counter . I also try switching my toothpaste now I’m using argelitz( it is an organic toothpaste) and try to used heompathic medicines but apparently non of those work for me and am sick and tired of this sickness. I always have sores sometimes 7 at the same time and it does’nt stop, one would healed and then there is another one coming out. Its so painful , I cannot eat, talk, smile and my husband is complaining because he cannot even kiss me and it makes me crazy. So maybeam going to try that omega 3 and see if its work for me.

    Thanks

  20. Tom Says:

    For lots of discussion on canker sores, check http://www.mouthulcers.org

  21. Penny Boehle Says:

    I discovered the walnut connection too by accident. Trying to get my daughter who is plagued by canker sores to give it a try but she is resisting. most sites say to avoid walnuts. I noticed first a lessening of pain and then it was gone after a few days.