Whitening toothpastes. Mouthwashes. Home bleaching kits. Our national obsession with white teeth and fresh breath has spawned an entire mouth-care industry. We are a nation obsessed with the appearance of our mouths. But the focus of all this obsession might be misplaced: In the scheme of things, how our teeth look and our mouth smells really don’t add up to much. The overall health of our mouths and gums, however, that’s a horse of a different color.
Research shows that our overall well-being is clearly linked to the condition of our teeth and gums. By cultivating good habits of dental health — and with help from herbs known to promote healthy teeth and gums — we can prevent tooth decay, gum disease — even heart disease. And, of course, we’ll have whiter teeth and fresher breath.
HEALTHY MOUTH, 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 disease.
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.
HERBS FOR A HEALTHY MOUTH
Aloe (Aloe vera). Aloe leaf gel has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties and helps heal gum inflammation and mouth ulcers. Apply a small amount of gel directly to the affected area.
Clove (Syzgium aromaticum). Clove essential oil contains eugenol, which has anesthetic properties. To ease a toothache until you can see a dentist, place a few drops of clove essential oil onto a cotton swab and rub gently onto the tooth and gum.
Echinacea (Echinacea spp.). Echinacea has powerful antibacterial and immune-stimulating properties and helps to fight infection. Add 1/2 teaspoon of the liquid extract to 1/2 glass of water as a mouthwash to heal gum inflammation. If you have an infection, take 1/2 teaspoon of the liquid extract three times a day.
Myrrh (Commiphora mukul). A potent antibacterial, myrrh combats infection in the teeth and gums. It also helps strengthen gums.
Neem (Azadirachta indica). An Ayurvedic herb, neem has antimicrobial properties. The powdered herb helps strengthen gums and prevent plaque and is found in some natural toothpastes. Because safety in pregnant or nursing women and young children has not been established, neem products should not be used without consulting your health-care practitioner.
Peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita). Contains menthol, an excellent breath freshener. Rinse your mouth with cool, unsweetened peppermint tea, or add a couple of drops of peppermint essential oil to a glass of water and use as a mouthwash.
Sage (Salvia officinalis). Strongly astringent, sage tightens gum tissue and soothes mucous membranes in the mouth. Use cool sage tea as a mouth rinse to tighten gums.
Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia). A powerful antibacterial, tea tree essential oil combats infection, including the bacteria that cause tooth decay and gum disease. Add 3 drops of tea tree essential oil to 1/2 cup of water and use as a mouth rinse (don’t swallow the mixture). Because safety in pregnant or nursing women and young children has not been established, tea tree products should not be used without consulting your health-care practitioner.
WHITEN TEETH 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 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 (Dorling Kindersley, 2003) and Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).