Your teeth are designed to last a lifetime, but you’ll have to take care of them to die with them. Unfortunately, an increasing percentage of Americans lives longer than their teeth and ends their life wearing dentures.
Taken together, oral diseases create a chronic disorder that’s expensive, painful, and eventually leads to tooth loss. Every year, Americans fork over in excess of $95 billion, or about $315 per person, to treat and slow the degeneration of their dental health, which is only 4.3 percent of the $2.2 trillion ($7,421 per capita) spent on health care overall, yet 80 to 90 percent of our population still has some observable gum disease.
And oral and dental diseases have a reciprocal relationship with your overall health. If you’re generally overstressed and unhealthy, your immune system will be suppressed and oral bacterial damage to your gums and teeth will escalate. If your mouth is unhealthy, your gum disease will chronically overload your health, lowering your overall disease resistance.
Although this concept is nothing new to holistic health aficionados, recent research confirms that gum disease contributes to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, premature birth and pneumonia.
Mainstream dentistry has evolved profoundly over the last few years, with a shift from mechanical to biochemical. Moving away from the construction paradigm—building bridges and crowns, filling holes —dentists are increasingly resorting of biology to keep our mouths healthy. Rather than drill and fill, why not help people avoid losing their teeth in the first place? We know a lot more about the bacteria that live in the mouth than we did even a few years ago, and it seems likely that herbs known to kill bacteria should help out in oral disease, which is, of course, caused largely by bacteria.
Healthy Gums in a Healthy Body
Want to keep those pearly whites? Then make a point to keep your gums in great shape. Gum disease is America’s number-one oral health issue, yet but most patients probably don’t think about it unless they’re diagnosed with it, as it’s possible to have serious gum disease and not even know it.
Periodontal disease (PD) is a broad term used to describe an inflammatory disorder of the gums (aka gingivitis), which typically progresses to periodontitis, involving tooth support structures. PD may be a sign of a more systemic condition, such as diabetes, anemia, various vitamin deficiencies or leukemia. In addition, it is associated with atherosclerosis and elevation of C-reactive protein (CRP), which is an important marker for systemic inflammation and a major risk factor for heart disease.
PD is often caused by a chronic low-grade bacterial infection of the gums, bone and ligaments that support the teeth and anchor them in the jaw. If allowed to progress, the supporting structures of the teeth are destroyed, eventually causing the tooth to die.
People of any age can get PD, and over half of all adults have the disease to some extent. By age 35, over three-quarters of all people are afflicted.
Natural medicine treatment for PD includes decreasing wound healing time (the timespan for wound healing is longer in those more susceptible to PD), improving the integrity of oral support structures, enhancing immune status (immune defects, especially white blood cells, are catastrophic to oral health) and decreasing inflammation.
One of the exciting new areas of research is on the effects of proanthocyanidins, anti-inflammatory chemicals that are abundant in many plants, including high percentages in green tea, pine bark and grapes, among many others. Researchers in the Department of Biochemistry, Meenakshi Ammal Dental College, in Chennai, India, published a paper on the positive effects of these plant constituents in dental disease. Since these chemicals are so widespread in our diet and herbal remedies, it is likely that they represent hope for a breakthrough wave of new natural dental treatments in the next few years.
Long chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, found in fish oil, have been shown to be useful in the treatment of a wide range of inflammatory disorders, so it seems only natural that a double-blind study would show noteworthy benefit with fish oil supplementation in periodontal disease. In the experiment, 60 healthy subjects with chronic periodontitis were treated or compared to a control group who received standard dental treatment and a placebo.
The treated patients was treated with a modest dose of 180 mg of EPA and 120 mg DHA (omega-3 fatty acids) daily for 12 weeks, and the experienced reduction in the gingival index, bleeding index, pocket depth, and clinical attachment level. Remarkably, the pocket depth progressed from 4.26 mm to roughly half that value at 2.15 mm. For general health, the standard recommendation is a total of 1,000 mg EPA+DHA. For healing purposes, the usual dosage is 3,000 mg EPA+DHA daily, so a higher dose might bear more fruit. A higher dosage of EPA+DHA seems to be necessary to lower CRP levels – a key marker in systemic inflammation.
Herbal treatments for PD involve irrigating or rinsing the gums with antibacterial liquids, including diluted goldenseal or myrrh tincture. Several studies looked at a natural mouth rinse containing gotu kola, an herb famous for healing connective tissue, and pomegranate, and found that the herbal rinse significantly reduced the clinical signs of chronic periodontitis. Rinses are made by preparing an herb as tea in the usual way, or by simply stirring herb powder into water. Hold the rinse in the mouth for a few seconds or up to several minutes, gargle, and spit out.
Since the gums are connective tissue, herbs that support connective tissue healing when taken internally will help. Since they must saturate the whole body as well as the gums, the healing effect tends to be slower, but more permanent. I have seen great successes with using high oral tea doses of gotu kola, an herb is renowned as a connective tissue healer. Use 1-2 ounces, dry herb weight, brewed as tea, per day.
Surprisingly, consuming healthy bacteria can help PD. Spanish experts studied the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri and found that daily doses over 30 days test group demonstrated a significant reduction in all parameters (plaque index, bleeding and pocket depths).
The oral disease conundrum starts with plaque, a cheesy film of food material that that builds up on your choppers. The bacterium that causes cavities, Streptococcus mutans, thinks of this slime as the perfect mobile home, lives on food sugars and creates acidic byproducts that harm tooth surfaces. Since the bugs that cause dental caries (aka cavities) thrive on sugar, the main way to keep your mouth healthy is to eat a sugar free, natural foods diet.
“Clean only the teeth you want to keep,” or so they say, so, of course, we must brush. If you’re the typical American, you spend only 51 seconds brushing. The ideal time? About three minutes.
One British study found significant reduction in gingivitis after brushing with the Indian herb meswak five times a day compared with modern methods. Neem bark, bay bark, juniper berry, eucalyptus leaf and fir needle all have their advocates.
What about herbal substitutes for typical toothpaste? Natural tooth powders remove plaque and condition the gums, and they should be warming, which promotes circulation in the gums, and astringent, to tighten oral tissues.
Fashion a natural dentifrice from a teaspoon of prickly ash bark, a teaspoon of Middle Eastern myrrh gum and 1 drop of tea tree oil, which stimulates circulation and kills bacteria.
These days, we have natural toothpastes available. Look for calendula, plantain, Echinacea, aloe, gotu kola and green tea as desirable ingredients. To add flavor and antibacterial action, consider peppermint, cinnamon, eucalyptus and lavender essential oils. Berberine, a major active constituent in goldenseal, has been shown scientifically to be antibacterial in tooth infection.
Numerous studies have shown herbal toothpastes and mouth rinses to be effective in reducing gum infection, bleeding, plaque and stains and that herbal toothpastes kill germs better than leading brands of conventional toothpaste. A double blind randomized clinical trial done in Sri Lanka, where herbal tooth preparations are widely used, tested the effects of a multiherb toothpaste, containing oak, ginger, clove and black pepper, used twice a day for 12 weeks, which resulted in a significant reduction in anaerobic and aerobic bacterial counts, plaque index, gum bleeding and pocket depth.
And speaking of clove oil, remember those old movies where the guy with a toothache has a big sling tied around his head? He also has clove oil, which has been used for centuries, on this tooth. Find it as a common ingredient in Ayurvedic tooth cleaning preparations, where it numbs the nerve sensation.
The recent news, though, is that there is scientific evidence that it also treats tooth decay. In another paper, South Korean dental scientists evaluated clove oil for dental caries, and concluded that this potent essential oil kills the bacteria that cause oral cancer and tooth decay. Use a natural clove toothpaste/rinse or rinse with clove tea.
When Things Go Wrong
To apply warming, astringent, connective tissue healing herbs as gum packs, take a pinch of powder, add enough water or vitamin E to make a paste, and tuck it in next to the teeth. Turmeric, goldenseal root, calendula flower, willow bark and oak bark are all work well. Another good choice is powdered gotu kola mixed to a clay-like consistency with castor oil. An herbal gum massage is also a delight. Black pepper, rose petal, oak leaf, and carob powder will enhance the gum massage.
Over the past decade, cranberry has emerged as a leading natural dental decay treatment. A study in The Journal of the American Dental Association found that a constituent of cranberry prevented the plaque bacteria from adhering to the teeth and forming colonies. Israeli researchers confirmed that cranberry inhibited plaque bacteria from creating the sticky film that allows them to adhere to the teeth. Scientists at the Eastman Department of Dentistry, University of Rochester Medical Center, in Rochester, New York, determined, no surprise, that the proanthocyanidins in red cranberry pigment were responsible.
Canadian researchers published a paper commending the virtues of the cranberry polyphenols (red pigments) for a plethora of anticavity actions. To hop on this train, simply enjoy a daily glass or two of natural cranberry juice.
Green tea and black tea contains very active polyphenols that kill bacteria and prevent bugs from sticking to the tooth surface. Research has identified a number of substances in green tea that can weaken the cavity-causing effects of Streptococcus mutans. German scientists tested several liquid herbal rinses for their dental benefits. Black tea was a top performer in reducing bacterial adherence. Japanese scientists confirmed that the catechins in green tea reduced inflammation in dental soft tissue. Egyptian dental researchers saw a substantial reduction of plaque bacteria in the saliva and plaque, and a reduction of acid in the plaque when their subjects rinsed for 5 minutes with green tea.
Add dental health to turmeric’s long list of benefits. Researchers conducted a study in which they gave curcumin, an active constituent from turmeric, in daily doses and checked for oral disease. The curcumin greatly reduced gum inflammation and gum tissue damage. Use 1-2 grams per day in capsules, or use turmeric as a coking spice. It even works as a rinse. Indian scientists used a 1% curcumin rinse that worked as well as a standard drug rinse.
A Pain in the Mouth
Canker sores (aphthous ulcers) are supremely painful small ulcerations in the mucous membranes of the oral cavity that are often strongly associated with food allergies and nutritional deficiencies, particularly of iron, B12, and folic acid. These ulcers develop from a breakdown in tissue structure, so again high dose gotu kola tea can come to the rescue.
Herbal rinses can produce big relief for canker sores, too, so you might consider astringent and anti-inflammatory turmeric, aloe gel or Acidophilus. If you are up for putting an herbal pack right on the sore, and leaving it there for as long as possible, use a pinch of powdered licorice root or myrrh gum.
Your teeth reflect your overall health. On the whole, if you are healthy, your mouth will be healthy. And even if there is a problem today, teeth, gums and bone can heal. By all means, have regular dental care, do your home maintenance and get your regular dental exams, even if your mouth is healthy and you are under good care. Still, potent natural home care techniques can buy you a little extra added insurance. Let them bring a smile to your face.