Oral health is ultimately linked to our overall health and well-being. The new guide to herbal dental care, Dental Herbalism (Healing Arts Press, 2014) by herbalist Leslie Alexander and dental hygienist Linda Straub-Bruce, details 41 safe and effective herbs to improve oral health. This excerpt from chapter 11, “An Herbal Materia Medica for the Mouth,” outlines four herbal remedies for dental health.
Historically, our reliance on herbs for healing is likely to have preceded our written records about healing. For a long time, herbs were the only medicines available to physicians, even Western physicians. Dentists, too. Each healer had his or her own repertoire of herbs. Some medicinal herbs were cultivated specifically for healing; others were native plants whose seasonal abundance in the wild provided ample access to healing for the common person. We call all these herbs our materia medica. It’s likely that this Latin phrase, meaning “medical materials,” dates back to the Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist Dioscorides who referred to his materia medica libre as his “free medical materials.” Perhaps it’s from this allusion that we have come to think of medicinal herbs as “the people’s medicine” because medical materials, more often than not, encompassed freely available local flora. Few professions retain the use of the phrase materia medica. Herbalism is one. Of late, the more general term pharmacology, i.e., the study of drugs, has seeped into common use.
Chew Sticks and Homemade Toothbrushes
Neem, alfalfa, arak, garcinia, sumac, birch, dogwood, marshmallow, horseradish, licorice and cottonwood are all suitable botanicals for making chew sticks. (A reminder about using neem: it can affect fertility and should be avoided by men and women wanting to conceive.) Traditionally, a chew stick is about 5 inches in length and anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 inch in diameter. With a choice root or twig, bark removed from the section to be inserted in the mouth, the end of the stick is either splayed by hand or chewed.
We can also flavor certain roots and use them to clean the mouth. Phytotherapist David Hoffmann suggests boiling 5-inch (cleaned) pieces of marshmallow root, ends peeled, in water with a cinnamon stick and cloves until tender. After carefully removing each, they are placed in brandy for 24 hours before being removed, dried and stored for later use.
Alternately, we can make our own toothbrushes. A homemade toothbrush may have a splayed end or a piece of textured cloth can be wrapped around a stick to provide a scrubbing surface. The opposite end can be shaved to have a pointed edge to be used as a toothpick.
Using a chew stick, or indeed a homemade toothbrush, will be a new experience for many and as with many new experiences, we may be aware of new sensations. Having used a traditional toothbrush for oh-so-many years, any change is likely to feel “different,” perhaps awkward. With repeated use over the course of a short while, we’ll be able to work more comfortably with a new tool and grow more accustomed to its new shape, size and feel as we establish a new routine. Only then, or perhaps even after a dental professional examines our mouth after months of use, will we be able to compare and assess the efficacy of the change.
It’s important to remember that just like a commercially sold toothbrush the homemade variety should be disposed of every three months (or after an illness) and replaced with a new tool. And certainly making one’s own toothbrush not only offers a creative outlet, it also is a good alternative to filling the local landfill with more plastic.
Most of us didn’t grow up using tooth powders and don’t yet appreciate their usefulness or their advantages. They make excellent choices to promote oral health, have been used for centuries and can be blended in large or small batches, altering flavor and herbal action to meet individual needs. They are economical to prepare and have a long shelf life.
Baking soda can be used as a simple tooth powder or as the primary ingredient of a basic formula. Its acid-reducing and antiseptic characteristics, coupled with its soft, low abrasive properties, make it an excellent stand-alone or component for a tooth powder. Baking soda has the added benefit of decreasing surface stains on the teeth.
After choosing herbs to use in a customized tooth powder, perhaps the next most important consideration is to ensure that the herbs we select are powdered finely enough to avoid abrading the teeth and gums. With time and effort, small amounts of herb may be powdered using a mortar and pestle, but this is slow work. It’s unlikely that blenders will powder herbs sufficiently, although a Vitamix blender can often accomplish this task. Herbal suppliers can and do offer dried herbs in powdered form and when purchased from a reputable supplier, these powders are easy to work with and blend effectively.
Michael Moore’s Tooth Powder
Renowned American herbalist Michael Moore influenced, taught and—one way or another—reached many practicing herbalists in the U.S. and abroad. His work often emphasized the materia medica of the Southwest and helped in bringing it into mainstream botanical medicine. Moore created several tooth powders, one of which we include here:
• 12 ounces arrowroot
• 4 ounces orris root
• 1 ounce baking powder
• 1 ounce licorice root
• 1 ounce myrrh
• 1 ounce cloves
• 1 ounce cinnamon
• 1 ounce yerba mansa
• 20 drops peppermint essential oil
• 10 drops wintergreen essential oil
The herbs in this formula are finely powdered, blended and stored in a sealed glass jar. Moore’s recipe provides a sound starting point for an excellent, all-around tooth powder; note the following possible substitutions:
* Baking soda can be substituted for baking powder.
* Nutmeg can be substituted for cinnamon.
* 5 drops of clove oil can be substituted for wintergreen and peppermint.
* Finely ground fresh black pepper adds a bit of a zing as well as an added anti-inflammatory component.
Try an Echinacea & Spearmint Herbal Toothpaste that is palatable and has great texture.
Scrubs and Rinses
Sea salt is a very important, widely available and inexpensive resource for the mouth and probably constitutes the simplest, most effective “tooth powder.”
Salt scrubs can be used for a variety of purposes such as exfoliating dry or dead skin from the body in general and in particular as an excellent medium for cleaning the mouth. Natural sea salt can be used as a toothpaste (it is, though, rather salty) and can be applied using a brush or a fingertip. In addition to its wound-healing properties, salt provides a valuable antimicrobial intervention.
A traditional brushing remedy is to use a combination of common garden sage leaves and sea salt. Three or four dried sage leaves can be toasted carefully until crisp or just blackened. With the addition of sea salt, this will yield enough brushing material for two to three uses.
Saltwater can be used alone or blended a thousand ways, depending on our choice of herb. Salt is an excellent anti-inflammatory and a sound, everyday, affordable intervention. For those interested in the myriad salts, their origins and differing compositions, Mark Bitterman’s manifesto, Salted, is an excellent resource. It’s worth remembering that often the processing of natural salts from different locations removes health-promoting minerals and results in what many of us know as “table salt.” Processed table salts, as compared to sea salts, are not only
devoid of these minerals but may have fluoride or iodine added. The following are a few suggestions for how to incorporate saltwater rinsing into a daily regimen:
BASIC SALT SOLUTION: A reasonable starting place for those with sensitive mouths is one teaspoon natural sea salt combined with half a pint of pure water. A stronger saline solution will astringe the gums further; three to four teaspoons can be used routinely. Stir well until the salt is dissolved and an accumulation, or precipitate, is observed.
SALT AND BAKING SODA: Two teaspoons of baking soda can be added to a salt rinse for those who have an affinity for baking soda. It’s often used as a means of affecting the pH of the mouth, making it more alkaline. Some people find the taste of baking soda difficult to tolerate. Herbal teas and decoctions can provide a more supportive and tastier foundation in lieu of water or, for example, a drop of an essential oil such as peppermint can improve flavor.
SALT AND HERBS: Half a teaspoon of any of the following tinctures can be added: cinnamon, clove, echinacea, goldenseal, myrrh, propolis, red clover, rosemary, sage, thyme and/or yarrow. Additionally, as just mentioned, a tea or a decoction can form the basis of any salt rinse. Like water, sufficient salt should be added to take advantage of the anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial actions that salt provides.
SALT AND ESSENTIAL OIL: Add one or two drops of pure essential oil such as clove, peppermint, wintergreen or cinnamon to a saltwater rinse.
Herbal Mouth Rinses
Mouth rinses are used to remove loose debris, freshen the breath and tighten the gums. They can also be used to promote health and well-being. They are most often composed of tinctures, decoctions, teas or blends, and can be used for a variety of purposes, from the daily cleansing of a healthy mouth to the healing of a diseased mouth such as one afflicted by chronic periodontitis.
As well, it’s important that herbal mouth rinses not be left to sit around in forgotten corners; any surplus can be stored in the refrigerator. In this way, various batches with different actions and flavors can be stored, blended and/or used interchangeably.
Rinsing is often the only way to clean the mouth in its entirety. The liquid is swished and gargled, pulled between the teeth, sloshed around in the mouth and then spit out. Always remember, the liquid used to rinse the mouth should never be swallowed after use.
Below are a variety of mouth rinses you can try at home. One of the strengths of the herbs included here is that they can be used for multiple conditions of the mouth and recipes can be altered to meet individual needs.
* Stevia, for sweetness and for its antimicrobial and nutritive properties can be added to any mouthwash recipe. We suggest avoiding commercial products and working with the leaf, which can be fresh or dried, or a tincture of the leaf in drop doses. Remember, the stevia leaf is very (very) sweet.
* As a reminder, rinses featuring the square-stemmed herbs include teas or tinctures of bergamot, rosemary, sage, thyme or lavender.
* To freshen the breath, use a tea or tincture of peppermint, rosemary, fennel or anise.
* Mouthwash favorites with a high vitamin C content (more effective choices when addressing gingivitis, early stages of periodontitis, thrush and other oral manifestations that present challenges to the mucosa) include rose hips, red raspberry leaves, blackberries and hibiscus flowers.
* For acute conditions, consider blending echinacea, calendula, plantain, yarrow, myrrh, propolis, prickly ash and/or willow—especially willow in the presence of any pain or discomfort.
* Cardamom, cumin, fennel and orange peel combined make a delicious tea that can also be used as a mouthwash, to freshen the breath and as a digestive tonic.
* Cinnamon and cloves afford antimicrobial activity; for broader action, add one or more of the following: calendula, myrrh, propolis, sage, rosemary, thyme, rose hips or cayenne. Note: Because it’s very hot, only the tiniest pinch of dried cayenne should be added, or two to five drops of tincture to one pint of rinse.
* Barbara Griggs, author of Green Pharmacy, reminds us that clove essential oil can be used to stem tooth pain. Add about a teaspoon of tincture to a small glass of warm water and use it regularly to help firm gums and stave off cavities.
* For early to moderate periodontitis, we can look toward barberry, echinacea, myrrh, cayenne, cinnamon, propolis and/or oak.
* For advanced periodontitis, two parts barberry and one part goldenseal are effective additions to any blend.
As a rinse for before and after visiting a dental professional—and especially if the mouth is prone to bleeding, or an extraction is scheduled—a reliable antimicrobial blend such as the following reduces the likelihood of further infection by providing broad-spectrum antimicrobial action.
• 1 teaspoon yarrow tincture
• 1 to 3 drops myrrh essential oil
• 2 teaspoons echinacea tincture
• 2 teaspoons fresh plantain juice (or leaves can be used to make a quid)
• 10 drops willow tincture
Calendula, turmeric, barberry and goldenseal can also be used, as needed.
Rosemary Gladstar’s Healing Mouthwash
Rosemary Gladstar is an American herbalist and the author of many well-known books on herbs. This recipe comes from her book Herbs for the Home Medicine Chest and is a useful intervention when early and moderate signs of inflammation appear.
• 3/4 cup water
• 1/4 cup vodka
• 40 drops, or 2 droppersful, calendula tincture
• 40 drops, 2 droppersful, goldenseal tincture
• 20 drops, 1 dropperful, myrrh tincture
• 1 to 2 drops peppermint essential oil
After mixing and shaking, dilute two to three tablespoons of this mixture in water daily and use as a mouth rinse.
Reprinted with permission from Dental Herbalism: Natural Therapies for the Mouth by Leslie M. Alexander and Linda A. Straub-Bruce and published by Healing Arts Press, a division of Inner Traditions, 2014.