Gum disease is one of the most prevalent diseases in the United States, affecting about 35 percent of adults age thirty and over. Most tooth loss comes not from bacterial attack on the teeth themselves but from gum disease, so prevention is the key to keeping your gums healthy and saving your teeth.
The teeth are covered with a tough coating of enamel and usually aren’t easy for bacteria to get into. But at the gumline, bac-teria feed on sugars left in the mouth after eating and produce a sticky substance called plaque. As this sticky, tough film begins to grow and thicken, it starts to pull the gum away from the tooth and create pockets where food can become trapped. Bacteria love these little warm pockets, away from our natural protective enzymes and immune cells, where they can multiply freely, creating inflammation and tissue destruction. Eventually the disease progresses to the point where bone loss becomes significant, undermining the tooth’s firm foundation. Tooth loss can and does result.
Two gum disease cases
A while back I had two patients at once dealing with gum disease and impending tooth loss. One was only thirty-two years old. When I examined the first patient, Sally, I saw that her gums were red, puffy, and glistening. She told me they were very sore, and they bled after she ate.
Sally went to her dentist, who wanted his hygienist to scrape the roots of Sally’s teeth with a sharp metal instrument. If that didn’t control the inflammation, he told her, he would cut away pieces of her gum to open up the areas that were harboring bacteria. This didn’t sound too inviting to Sally, who twisted her face into some very interesting positions while she told me about the process. I got the idea that she was hoping there would be an alternative. “I’m really willing to apply myself,” she said. And I knew she meant it; pain is a great motivator.
The second patient, Guy, was over sixty but had very nice-looking teeth. Guy told me he was on the verge of losing several teeth due to gum disease. I looked more closely at his teeth, which looked perfect. “Well, most of them have crowns; they do such nice ones today,” he said. I could see an area in his mouth that looked very red, and he could wiggle one tooth back and forth. His dentist wanted to pull three of his teeth, but a friend had told him that herbs might be able to help.
Good hygiene and vigilance are the best ways to reverse gum disease.
A challenging disease
These were two difficult cases, mainly because gum disease is often rooted in habit. Although heredity does play a role in gum health and disease, good hygiene and constant vigilance are the best ways to reverse the disease process, and many people have a hard time changing the habits that got them to a poor state of gum health in the first place.
My two patients were quite different. Normally I would start by checking older patients for symptoms of deficiency, such as night sweats, chronic lower back pain, and fatigue. Tooth problems are a sure sign of declining kidney qi (vital energy), according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Younger people can have deficient conditions but are more likely to have an excess condition because they haven’t had as much time to use up all their vital energy.
In this case, though, Guy turned out to be extremely robust. His tongue had a yellow coating and was quite red. His pulses were strong and wiry. He had a bright red patch right in the middle of his tongue, indicating a lot of heat in the stomach. Stomach heat is also associated with gum disease in TCM, showing the important connection between our internal conditions (the health of our organs) and so-called external ailments, like gum disease.
Sally had tooth decay in addition to gum disease, so she was likely to have a deficient pattern. Sure enough, her tongue had no coating, was red, and her pulses were quite weak. The two patients needed different basic programs to balance their body’s inner working environments.
Two customized programs
To start with, I coached both Sally and Guy on good hygiene. For someone with mouth problems, this consists of the following program.
First, be sure to brush and swish after each meal and snack (at least rinse in restaurants). Floss each night before bed, and irrigate with a light salt solution and an herbal antibacterial mouth rinse in the evening after flossing. I recommend adding, for each 30 oz. of irrigation water, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 5 to 8 drops of bloodroot tincture, and 3 to 5 drops of peppermint oil. Be careful to not swallow this mixture. You can also add 10 drops or so of your favorite commercial herbal mouth rinse, such as Viadent. Also, use a sonic brush (which helps reduce plaque and inflammation) as directed in the instructions or by your dentist.
In addition, I added to Sally’s program a strong kidney qi tonic formula that she was to take morning and evening with meals. It consisted of extracts of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), rehmannia (Rehman-nia glutinosa), and ligustrum (Ligustrum spp.). Formulas with these herbs are readily available in many herb shops.
Guy’s herbs were designed to clear stomach heat. His formula contained many Chi-nese herbs—a traditional formula called Qing Fei Yi Huo Pian. This formula is specific for only certain internal conditions.
If you have gum and teeth problems and want to help your condition with natural remedies, I recommend working with an experienced herbalist, naturopathic phys-ician, or other practitioner. Besides the basic tooth and gum herbs, working with your internal constitutional imbalance and diet will work wonders in many cases.
Guy did lose one tooth, because it was already too damaged when he began the program. He was, however, able to eliminate all the inflammation in his mouth and firm up the other two teeth. The whole healing process took about four months.
Sally reduced the inflammation in her mouth, and when I saw her again after several months, she said her dentist had commented on how much better her gums looked. Deficiency conditions take time to reverse. I had Sally continue with her formula and asked her to come in again in another few months.
I was confident that both Sally and Guy, following sound natural principles based on individual differences along with extra mouth care, would be able to save their teeth and greatly enhance their tooth and gum health. Today we are all too ready to submit to dental treatments, which are often quite drastic. We can save our teeth and gums—it all depends on taking responsibility and spending the ten to fifteen minutes a day to take care of business.
Christopher Hobbs’s case studies are gleaned from his thirty years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is an Herbs for Health editorial adviser and licensed acupuncturist. He is the coauthor of Vitamins for Dummies (IDG, 1999) and many other books.
By Christopher Hobbs
“Case studies” is not intended to replace the advice of your health-care provider.