Herbal Tips for a Healthy Mouth

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Your mouth is a pretty important place. It talks. It eats. It kisses. Maybe most important of all, it’s home to your teeth, tongue, and gums. If cared for properly, these vital structures can serve you almost unnoticed for years. If not, they can bring you untold misery. The choice is yours, and there’s a lot you can do to increase your chances of keeping your mouth healthy for a long time.

The facts and figures

Although we’ve gotten used to the idea of gradually losing teeth and replacing them through sophisticated dental pro­cedures, our teeth are designed to last a lifetime. But the number of Americans wearing dentures is increasing every year, according to those who practice alternative dentistry. This is due, in large part, to gum disease. American Dental Association figures show that 75 percent of American adults older than age thirty-five have gum disease. Alternative dentists say the figure is much higher, based on their approach of categorizing disordered tissue as gum disease rather than waiting until it becomes full-blown periodontal disease.

The nasty duo of cavities and gum disease can be expensive to correct. Americans spend more than forty-four billion dollars a year to treat and slow the degeneration of their dental health, according to the American Dental Association. Further, if your mouth is unhealthy, it can overload your immune system and lower your resistance to disease. Dental research groups have recently linked gum infections to heart disease. Porphyromonas gingivalis, a bacterium that lives below the gum line and is responsible for some gum infections, produces an enzyme that can activate blood clotting, according to scientists at the University of Georgia, whose findings were published in the June 1997 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Toothbrushes, pastes, and powders

Evidently, a healthy mouth has benefits beyond a flashing smile, fresh breath, and the ability to eat corn on the cob at a summer barbecue. The first step toward keeping your mouth healthy is keeping it clean.

Most mouth problems begin with plaque–you know, that gunk that builds up on those pearly whites. Material from food creates a filmy layer on the tooth surface and provides a medium for bacterial growth. The bacteria responsible for decay, Streptococcus mutans, acts on sugars in food to create acidic byproducts that damage tooth surfaces. Without proper care, the plaque may eventually degenerate into calculus, also called tartar, a hardened mixture of calcium phosphate, calcium carbonate, and organic matter, which must be removed by a professional. One way to avoid plaque is to limit your sugar intake and eat a well-balanced diet.

Of course, brushing your teeth is the most basic way to keep your teeth clean, and it’s a good place to start your natur­al tooth-and-gum care program. People around the world use natural toothbrushes made from healing plants. These rather crude twigs actually work quite well and provide a natural-bristle, disposable brush with healing herbs found right in the plant. Children in particular find these twigs fun to use. In The Herbs of Life (Crossing Press, 1992), herbalist Lesley Tierra writes that some twigs contain volatile oils that stimulate blood circulation, tannins that tighten and cleanse gum tissue, and vitamin C, which maintains healthy gums. Twigs of eucalyptus, oak, fir, and juniper all make good natural toothbrushes, she writes. You can find natural “toothbrush twigs” in some health-food stores.

Most of us, however, brush with more modern, nylon-bristled brushes, and need an herbal toothpaste or tooth powder. Herbal medicine abounds with great substitutes for the more typical toothpastes. Look for natural preparations that will help remove plaque and condition the gums.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is used in many natural toothpastes and powders–it’s simply a powerhouse, possessing the ability to fight bacteria, viruses, and inflammation, to name only a few of its attributes. Tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia oil) is another ingredient that’s often used in natural toothpastes because it stimulates circulation and kills germs. Myrrh gum is widely used in Middle Eastern herbalism and contains compounds that fight germs. An herbal combination from the Ayurvedic medicine of India also makes an effective tooth powder. It includes two parts powdered potassium alum (an astringent) and one part powdered salt. You may also add turmeric or other herbs to the formula, depending on your goals (see above).

Healing packs and rinses for your gums

Applying herbs directly to the gums is the fastest way to promote healing. The gums are connective tissue, and warming, astringent herbs, such as turmericand goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), can help heal connective tissue and generally enhance and maintain oral health. These herbs can be applied as packs. Using water or liquid vitamin E, wet a pinch of powdered herb to make a paste and tuck it next to the teeth; keep it there for a few minutes or even overnight. Or use the herbs to make a tea (one teaspoon of dried herb to a cup of boiling water); let the tea cool before using it as a rinse. You can also make an herbal rinse by stirring one teaspoon of powdered herb into water. Hold the rinse in your mouth for a few seconds or up to several minutes, gargle, and spit it out. Goldenseal root is an effective rinse ingredient because it’s astringent, tones the mucous membranes, and fights bacteria. Because goldenseal growing in the wild is considered endangered, check to see that the source you’re using is cultivated goldenseal.

Internal use of herbs that support the healing and development of connective ­tissue also will help maintain healthy gums. You may wish to try bilberry fruit or hawthorn berry, both rich sources of proanthocyanidins, the red pigments in plants that are known to be highly anti-inflamma­tory and help stabilize collagen, which strengthens gum tissue. Licorice root helps suppress dental caries (tooth decay), reduce plaque, and fight bacteria. These herbs can be taken as teas or sprinkled onto food. Capsules, pills, and tinctures also are available, but consult your health-care practitioner before taking any medicine in concentrated doses because some may harm you, depending on your condition.

Finally, you may have heard about tongue cleaning. According to Ayurvedic medicine, cleaning the tongue is an essential part of maintaining oral health, based on the belief that it helps prevent plaque and fight bad breath. To clean your tongue, simply brush it while brushing your teeth, or use a tongue scraper, available in health-food stores.

A word about canker sores

Ginkgo and other herbs may be made into soothing rinses.

Mouth ulcers, commonly called canker sores, can be excruciatingly painful. Jonathan Wright, M.D., of Kent, Washington, an advocate of preventive medicine, says that canker sores are virtually always linked to food allergies and nutritional deficiencies (they also may be linked to immune dysfunction, viral infections, and other factors, according to some studies). Some common deficiencies that may bring on canker sores include iron, vitamin B12, and folic acid. If you’re suffering from recurring canker sores, consider checking with your physician to determine whether you have nutritional deficiencies.

To treat mouth ulcers, you might try gotu kola. Mouth ulcers stem from a breakdown in tissue structure, and gotu kola is widely used to heal wounds and promote connective tissue growth. The recommended dose is one cup of tea daily (use one teaspoon of dried gotu kola for each cup of boiled water). This tea, when cooled, can also be used as a rinse.

Other herbs that may be made into soothing rinses include ginkgo, which is receiving scientific attention lately for its ability to promote healing when applied topically, and chamomile (a recent study showed that a chamomile mouthwash was effective in treating mouth ulcers caused by chemotherapy). My choice, though, is licorice root, a potent anti-inflammatory that helps tissues heal. Put a pinch of powder on the sore, or suck on a lozenge made from deglycyrrhizinated licorice.

The tooth killer: Periodontal disease

Periodontal disease is a long-term, low-grade bacterial infection of the gums, bone, and ligaments that support the teeth and anchor them in the jaw. Bacteria are normal inhabitants of the mouth, but when allowed to overgrow, they form plaque and tartar and produce toxins that provoke the body’s immune response. P. gingivalis, specifically, produces an infectious condition associated with connective tissue loss, resorption of bone, and formation of infectious pockets. This bug is the most common cause of tooth loss in adults and is called an “opportunistic anaerobe”–an organism that can survive without oxygen and sits in your gums, just waiting to be nourished. When allowed to grow, it destroys the supporting structures of the teeth and can lead to tooth loss.

According to James Travis, Ph.D., ­professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Georgia, periodontal disease is the number-one chronic infectious disease in the world. Although the disease can strike at any age, more than half of all people in the United States older than age eighteen have some form of the disease, and about 75 percent of those age thirty-five and older are affected.

In my experience, gum treatment and whole-body healing (which includes exercise, a sugar-free diet, and caring for your specific health problems) can drastically reverse gum disease. Applying turmeric mouth packs to the gums is an outstanding treatment. Additionally, Ayurvedic medicine offers some effective treatments, including astringent remedies such as alum, geranium root, and myrrh, which are made into a pack and applied directly to the site of the infection or inflammation. These substances can be combined as desired using the directions for healing herb packs described above.

A classic Ayurvedic rinse for gum disease and general mouth care is called triphala, or “three fruits.” Triphala contains amla, bibitaki, and haritaki, each highly astringent; triphala is now available in many health-food stores. To prepare a triphala rinse, follow the rinse instructions above. Ayurveda also recommends conditioning the gums by rubbing them daily with an oil such as sesame or coconut.

A reflection of health

Think of your mouth as a mirror of the health within; a healthy mouth is a sign of a healthy body. If your gums are damaged, don’t be discouraged–they can heal. Think about trying an herbal approach to treatment. And smile.

K. P. Khalsa is a clinical herbalist, licensed nutritionist, and freelance writer who lives in Seattle, Washington. He is co-author of Herbal Defense (Warner, 1997).

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