Whitening toothpastes. Mouthwashes. Home
bleaching kits. There is certainly no shortage of products
available to whiten teeth and freshen breath. We are a nation
obsessed with the appearance of our mouths. But the focus of all
this obsession might be misplaced: paying attention to our teeth
and mouths is far more than just a cosmetic concern.
Research shows that our overall well-being is clearly linked to
the condition of our teeth and gums. By cultivating good dental
health habits — and with the help of herbs known to promote healthy
teeth and gums — we can prevent tooth decay, gum disease and even
heart disease. As a bonus, we’ll have whiter teeth and fresher
Primary Causes of Dental Troubles
According to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, almost
75 percent of U.S. adults older than 35 have some form of gum
disease. It’s long been known that gum disease can cause serious
dental problems, including tooth loss. But in the past decade, gum
disease has been linked to other health concerns, including heart
attacks, strokes, respiratory diseases and premature births.
These problems arise from the bacteria (specifically
Streptococcus mutans) contained in plaque, a sticky, colorless film
that forms on teeth. This bacteria can travel throughout the
bloodstream, triggering the development of gum disease or worsening
existing conditions. For example, inflammatory compounds produced
by the body’s reaction to the bacteria stimulate the buildup of
cholesterol in the arteries. Researchers have found that
periodontal (gum) disease almost doubles the risk of coronary
artery disease. Bacteria in the mouth also can be inhaled into the
lungs, where the germs multiply, potentially causing respiratory
infections such as pneumonia. Studies of pregnant women with gum
disease show they are up to seven times more likely to have a
premature or underweight baby.
Signs that you might have gum disease include sore or bleeding
gums, bad breath or receding gums. Gingivitis, an early stage of
gum disease, is an inflammation and infection of the gums. Most of
the time, gingivitis can be reversed with daily brushing and
flossing to remove bacteria, and twice-yearly professional
cleanings. But if gingivitis is left untreated, it can lead to
periodontitis. At this more serious stage of gum disease, the gum
pulls away from the teeth and forms pockets. Food debris and
bacteria collect in the pockets, and plaque spreads below the gum
line. Infection beneath the gums breaks down the bone and
connective tissue that anchor the teeth. If left untreated,
periodontal disease results in tooth loss.
Tooth decay is another major dental health concern. Although
most people associate cavities with childhood, decay is a serious
problem for adults, too. When gums recede, vulnerable tooth roots
are exposed to the bacteria that cause decay. According to the
American Dental Association, the majority of people older than 50
suffer from tooth-root decay. In addition, decay around the edges
of fillings is a common problem for adults because as fillings
weaken and crack, bacteria gain access to the tooth.
A Healthy Mouth in a Healthy Body
The bacteria in plaque thrive on the sugars and starches we eat,
producing acids that attack tooth enamel and cause decay. A buildup
of plaque at the gum line also lays the groundwork for gum
Daily brushing and flossing sweep away most plaque deposits. But
it takes only 24 hours for plaque to harden into calculus, a
cement-like substance that can only be removed by a professional
dental cleaning. It’s not possible to completely prevent calculus
buildup with home dental care, so twice-yearly professional
cleanings are a must.
While brushing and flossing are essential for preventing gum
disease and tooth decay, other factors are also important. To keep
your mouth healthy, follow the same basic principles necessary for
general health and well-being: Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep
and learn to manage stress. All of these factors keep your immune
system in top condition so it can maintain the upper hand over the
bacteria that cause disease.
As much as possible, avoid the sugars and refined carbohydrates
that feed bacteria, including certain foods that are generally
considered healthy, especially fruit juices, dried fruit, crackers
and pretzels. If you eat these foods, make sure to brush your teeth
afterward. Healthier choices that don’t promote bacterial growth
include fresh fruits, raw vegetables, cheeses and nuts.
It’s also important to drink plenty of water (at least six
glasses daily) to stay well-hydrated. This keeps mouth tissues
moist and helps prevent bacterial overgrowth and bad breath. Avoid
carbonated soft drinks, which not only are loaded with large
amounts of sweeteners but generally also contain phosphoric acid or
citric acid, which can erode tooth enamel. Tea, however — in
particular, green tea — contains compounds called polyphenols that
have been shown to inhibit the growth of oral bacteria. To keep
teeth and gums healthy, drink two to three cups of green tea
An exception to the rule that sweets are bad for your teeth is a
low-calorie sugar called xylitol. Made from birch trees, xylitol
has been shown in studies to actually help prevent tooth decay and
gum disease. Sugar-free chewing gums and mints are often made with
xylitol. For best results, use xylitol gum or mints three to five
times a day, following each meal or snack. A note of caution,
though: In amounts larger than recommended, xylitol can cause
In addition to eating a healthful diet, certain supplements are
especially beneficial for dental health. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
improves circulation to the gums and can help prevent gum disease.
Take 60 to 100 mg daily in capsule form. A deficiency of vitamin C
can cause gum disease, loose teeth and tooth loss. Make sure you’re
getting at least 200 mg of vitamin C every day, but avoid chewable
vitamin C tablets because ascorbic acid can erode tooth enamel.
Also make sure you’re getting 1,000 mg or more of calcium daily,
from foods or supplements. Calcium is necessary for building and
maintaining healthy teeth as well as many other essential
physiological functions. If blood levels of calcium fall, the body
draws calcium stores from the jaw, which can result in tooth
The Art of Brushing and Flossing
There’s no question that failing to brush and floss greatly
increases the risk of tooth decay and gum disease. But overzealous
tooth brushing, a hard-bristled toothbrush or an overly abrasive
toothpaste also creates problems.
Brushing too hard can wear away tooth enamel, erode gums and
cause tooth sensitivity. Instead, place the toothbrush at a
45-degree angle to your teeth and brush your teeth and gums with a
gentle, circular motion. If you’re using an electric toothbrush,
place the brush halfway between the gums and teeth and let the
machine do the work. To adequately clean your teeth, dentists
recommend brushing for two full minutes. Don’t forget to brush your
tongue to remove the bacteria that cause bad breath and plaque.
To prevent damage to tooth enamel and gums, use the softest
toothbrush you can find. Replace it at least every three months and
also following an illness such as a cold or the flu. To further
soften a new toothbrush, run it under hot water for a few seconds
Most toothpaste is a combination of detergents, abrasives and
sweeteners. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is frequently used as a
cleanser and foaming agent in conventional and natural toothpastes.
Recently, research studies have shown that toothpaste that contains
SLS is linked to recurrent aphthous ulcers (more commonly known as
canker sores). Natural toothpaste brands are available that don’t
contain SLS, or you can make your own simple and effective
toothpaste (see “Natural Toothpaste” on Page 37).
Fluoride is added to most toothpastes because it has been shown
to prevent tooth decay. However, controversy exists over the safety
of fluoride because it has been linked to immune dysfunction and
other diseases. If you’d rather not use fluoride, many natural
brands of fluoride-free toothpaste are available (or again, you can
make your own).
No matter how carefully you brush your teeth, bacteria hide
between the teeth and under the gum line, where your toothbrush
can’t reach. Flossing is the best way to remove hidden bacteria.
Floss between and around each tooth, curving the floss around the
tooth and gently under the gum line.
Rinsing your mouth daily with sage tea helps to tighten gums and
eliminate bacteria. Infuse 1 teaspoon of sage leaves in 1 cup of
water for 10 minutes, cool, and use as a rinse. Sea salt also has
gum-tightening and mild antiseptic properties. Dissolve 1 teaspoon
of sea salt in 1 cup of warm water and use as a mouthwash.
Whiten Your Pearlies Naturally
Pigments in coffee, tea, red wine, blueberries and tobacco are
some of the primary causes of tooth discoloration. In addition,
antibiotics given in early childhood can discolor teeth, and teeth
tend to gradually turn yellow with aging.
Normal tooth brushing removes a certain amount of these
pigments, but with time, tooth enamel can become stained. While
mild abrasives in toothpaste can remove surface stains, it takes a
whitening agent, such as hydrogen peroxide, to remove stains below
the surface of the enamel.
A variety of gels, toothpastes and whitening strips are widely
available for whitening teeth, and the procedure can also be
performed by a dentist. Although tooth whitening is regarded as
safe, the bleaching agents can cause intense (although usually
temporary) tooth sensitivity.
To make your own tooth-whitening treatment, mix 1 teaspoon of
baking soda with enough hydrogen peroxide to make a paste, and
brush your teeth for 2 minutes. Rinse thoroughly. Repeat daily, if
desired. Although not as strong as the bleach used in dental
offices, this mixture will noticeably brighten your smile.
Laurel Vukovic writes and teaches about herbs and natural
healing from her home in southern Oregon. She is the author of 1001
Natural Remedies (see our Bookshelf, Page 58) and Herbal Healing
Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).