Herbal Tips for a Healthy Mouth

A great smile goes beyond just brushing.

| September/October 1998

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.

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