Herbs for Healthy Teeth and Gums

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Young dogwood twigs, stripped of their bark and rubbed against the teeth and gums, were used in many cultures as the forerunners of the modern toothbrush.
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Researchers have found that remedies containing powdered garlic are a good alternative to fresh garlic. Clinical studies have found, however, that garlic does not cause significant differences in the levels of lipoproteins, triglycerides, and other fatty acids in children.
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Grape seed extracts may help alleviate symptoms of seasonal allergies.

I became interested in chewing sticks, the forerunners of the modern toothbrush, while browsing through Gunn’s ­Domestic Medicine (1831), by John Gunn, M.D. Of the twigs of flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), Gunn wrote, “These are toothbrushes of nature’s presenting and are infinitely better than those of hogs’ bristles.” “The young branches stripped of their bark, and rubbed with their ends against the teeth, render them extremely white,” reiterated Dr. Peter Good in his Family Flora (1845).

Sounded good, and dogwoods are plentiful where I live in Arkansas, so I tried one. Never has a toothbrush or toothpaste left my teeth and gums feeling so clean or refreshed. The dogwood sticks reach into those hard-to-brush chinks between and behind teeth better than any toothbrush I’ve ever used.

I cut a fresh dogwood twig 1/8 to 3/16 inch across and 4 inches long and peel the bark back an inch or two on one end. Smaller twigs tend to split at the ends; larger ones are too tough. Gently gnawing the twig end for a few minutes softens and separates the fibers, creating a fine brush. I rub the brush into every nook and cranny of my teeth for five or ten minutes, then gently massage my gums with it. The hardness of dogwood and the ease with which its fibers form a natural brush make this slightly bitter wood perfect for this purpose.

Folk wisdom

More than once, I’ve walked into an Ozark country store with a dogwood stick dangling from my lips and heard an old-timer exclaim that he hadn’t seen anyone using a “chaw stick” for years. According to Memory P. F. Elvin-Lewis of Washington University, an authority on traditional cultures’ use of plants in dentistry, twigs of spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) and stalks of horsetail (Equisetum spp.) were popular chewing sticks in the Ozarks, while those of black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), black birch (Betula lenta), and sassafras (Sassafras albidum) were used in Appalachia. Chewing sticks from a wide variety of plants are still used in parts of Africa, Asia, and South America.

Many Native American groups used herbs, as well as ­fibrous plant materials, sinews, bones, or toothpicks, for oral hygiene and dental care. The Thompson people of the Pa- cific Northwest chewed sumac root to treat sore mouths and tongues. The Chippewa used a tea of sumac blossoms to soothe teething infants. The Osage, Delaware, and Cherokee used red willow (Salix lucida) twigs as chewing sticks, and both Native Americans and white settlers favored chewing sticks made from the twigs of sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua).

Elvin-Lewis has speculated that Africans brought to America during the colonial period adopted dogwood chewing sticks because they are similar in flavor and texture to the twigs of Garcinia and Kaya species used

Capsules Powdered vs. fresh garlic

Garlic’s long use in folk medicine as a virtual panacea has prompted some 2,500 ­scientific studies examining its antibacterial, antifungal, antiparasitic, ­antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, immunostimulant, and other properties.

It is generally believed that garlic’s active principle is allicin, a smelly sulfur compound formed when fresh garlic is crushed, bringing the enzyme ­alliinase into contact with the odorless compound alliin. The same enzymatic reaction occurs when water is mixed with dried powdered garlic, ­researchers at the University of Bonn have discovered. As the reaction will take place in powdered garlic that is up to a year old, they conclude that remedies containing powdered garlic are a good alternative to fresh garlic, but ­because alliinase is inactivated by stomach acids, these products need to be formulated with an acid-resistant coating so that the garlic will be released in the alkaline environment of the small intestine. (1)

Garlic for children?

Hardly any clinical studies of herbal preparations sold in the United States have involved children. Canadian researchers, however, have conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of a commercial garlic extract in thirty children with a family history of high cholesterol. The participants, aged eight to eighteen, received 300 mg of either the extract or a placebo three times a day for eight weeks. At the end of the study, the researchers found no significant differences between the placebo and treatment groups in the levels of lipoproteins, triglycerides, and other fatty acids.

In a note that accompanied the story, Catherine D. DeAngelis, editor of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, wrote, “I’m going to be disowned by my family for publishing anything negative about garlic. On the other hand, this is exactly the kind of study needed to determine the effects of complementary medicine.” (2)

Grape compounds and allergies

I am always skeptical about anecdotal information on the health benefits of herbs, especially trendy ones: I have seen too many false hopes come and go. Nevertheless, I’d like to relate an herbal anecdote of my own that appears to be backed up by a scientific study.

Grape seed extracts contain antioxidants, which have received much attention lately because of their role in slowing aging. Researchers have also found that the extracts reduce the tendency to bruise easily (particularly in the elderly), varicose veins, and other disorders of the smaller blood vessels.

A friend who works for a company that prepares grape seed extract told me that customers had found that the ­extract alleviated the symptoms of seasonal allergies; she had tried it herself and found it ­effective. Because I’m allergic to grass pollen, I tried the extract myself and experienced few of my usual symptoms of sneezing fits, itchy eyes, and constantly runny nose. Chalk one up to the placebo effect, I thought, as I had not seen a shred of evidence that would suggest that grape products could help my allergy.

A few weeks later, however, I read of a preliminary laboratory study showing that resveratrol and other components of grape seeds inhibit beta-hexosaminidase, an enzyme stored in the secretory granules of mast cells that is released along with histamine in an allergic response. That reaction is what makes eyes water and noses run. Could this inhibition explain the relief of ­allergy symptoms that I and others experienced after taking grape seed extracts? Further ­research will likely follow. (3)


(1) Krest, I., and M. Keusgen. “Quality of Herbal Remedies from Allium sativum: Differences between Alliinase from Garlic Powder and Fresh Garlic.” Planta Medica 1999, 65:139–143.

(2) McCrindele, B. W., E. Helden, and W. T. Conner. “Garlic Extract Therapy in Children with Hypercholesterolemia.” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine November 1998, 152:1089–1094.

(3) Cheong, Ho, Shi–Yong Ryu, and Keyong–Man Kim. “Anti-allergic Action of Resveratrol and Related Hydroxystilbenes.” Planta Medica 1999, 65: 266–268.

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