'We’ll have to operate, but we may yet save some of your teeth. It’s expensive and painful, but there’s no other choice.” That was the dentist’s final opinion. Sat Darshan, fifty-three, of Yadkinville, North Carolina, had serious periodontal disease. His gums were painful and bleeding, and rife with 10- to 12-mm-deep pockets. His teeth wiggled in their sockets. How did he get there? In his words, “a history of poor oral hygiene, a lifetime of late-night sweet consumption, and decades of smoking.”
Instead of having the surgery, Darshan began to explore natural alternatives. His first stop was the Bastyr University Naturopathic Clinic in Seattle. His doctor there recommended daily doses of Coenzyme Q10 to stabilize the gum tissue, and a few basic lifestyle changes. These measures slowed the degeneration.
But the strategy that really turned Darshan’s gum disease around was herbal therapy—his last resort. Darshan made nightly gum packs from herbs rolled in gauze and tucked them into the corner of his mouth. He used a combination of turmeric (Curcuma longa), aloe (Aloe vera), willow bark (Salix spp.), vitamin E, and powdered alum.
After four months of using the gum packs, taking supplements such as vitamins A and C, plus calcium, hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), gotu kola (Centella asiatica), and turmeric, and brushing his teeth with a powdered mixture of alum and salt, Darshan’s teeth were more solid in his mouth. He wound up avoiding any extractions. Today, four years later, he still has no significant periodontal disease, just a couple of 3-mm pockets—quite normal for a man of his age. He continues to watch his diet and practice good dental hygiene, but he has been able to discontinue the gum packs.
Even though Darshan’s results were positive, he emphasizes that his recovery “didn’t just happen—it took a tremendous amount of effort and some discomfort.”
When it comes to health, the mouth speaks
Darshan is not alone. According to the dental profession, nearly one-third of Americans age thirty and older have gum disease. Americans spend more than $40 billion a year to treat and slow the degeneration of their dental health.
What gets less discussion, though, is the relationship between dental disease and overall body health. If you’re overstressed and unhealthy, your immune system will be weakened; the result is that harmful mouth bacteria, normally kept in check, flourish. The equation works the other way, too: If your mouth is unhealthy—especially if it has gum disease—the bacteria challenge your health every moment of the day, lowering your resistance to all diseases.
As dentists recognize the mouth’s connection with overall health, conventional dentistry is changing radically. It’s shifting its emphasis from a construction paradigm—building bridges and crowns, filling holes—to a biological one. Keeping pace with the changes in dental care are groundbreaking preventive measures that should help people avoid losing their teeth in the first place. Oral microbiologists are developing a deeper understanding of the bacteria that live in the mouth. And recent studies that show gum disease’s statistical relationship to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, premature birth, and pneumonia are focusing new attention on dental health.
Mitchell Marder, D.D.S., a Seattle dentist, looks at oral health as a reflection of the state of the whole body, especially the digestive tract. “After all,” he says, “the gut and the mouth are the same tube.” He will often query patients about digestive symptoms in the course of an exam.
Gum’s the word
You’ve probably heard a thousand times about brushing and flossing. But in case you’ve forgotten, below are some of the reasons you’ve heard it so often.
A clean mouth is a healthy mouth. A saying among dental professionals goes, “Clean only the teeth you want to keep.” The whole process of dental and gum decay starts with plaque—that cheesy gunk that builds up on your pearly whites along the gum line. This food material builds up a filmy layer on the tooth surface, which creates a medium for bacterial growth. Without proper care, the plaque may ultimately degenerate into calculus, also known as tartar—a hardened mixture of calcium phosphate, calcium carbonate, and old food deposits. Tartar is there to stay until removed by a professional; brushing won’t budge it. Left on your teeth, tartar is a gradually deepening wedge in the critical bond between your teeth and your gums.
So you’re brushing two to three times a day—at least morning and night; preferably after each meal. Ask yourself this question: Could your toothpaste be doing you more harm than good?
Holistic dentists often believe that artificial sweeteners have no place in dental care. Marder also says that sodium lauryl sulfate, a detergent commonly found in toothpaste, should be avoided because it can be irritating or produce diarrhea. And he suggests forgoing fluoride, as it can make teeth more brittle.
Fluoride is a controversial ingredient. Since April 1997, toothpastes have carried warnings to take children to the hospital if they swallow more fluoride toothpaste than normally used for brushing. Legally, the fluoride in toothpaste is classified as an over-the-counter drug. With many municipal water supplies carrying fluoride already, you may well question whether you need more exposure to this chemical. Herb shops and health-food store shelves abound with great natural tooth cleaners—pastes, powders, and rinses. What you want first from such a product is that it removes plaque and conditions the gums. But many effective natural tooth powders offer more: They contain ingredients that are warming, to promote circulation in the gums; astringent, to tighten the gums; and detoxifying, to help move toxins through the system. A classic Ayurvedic combination is 2 parts powdered potassium alum to 1 part powdered salt. You might also look for products with ingredients such as prickly ash bark (Zanthoxylium spp.), myrrh gum (Commiphora spp.), or small quantities of tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia).
Herbs to help you keep smiling
In the dental section of your favorite health-food store, you’ll likely see natural alternatives to mouthwashes and toothpastes, plus old-fashioned tooth powders, tongue scrapers, and perhaps undyed floss.
But there also are herbs you can take internally to help fight mouth bacteria, increase tissue circulation, and speed healing of any mouth or gum damage. The list of herbs below will tell you about their properties and how to use them.
Amla (Phyllanthus emblica). This herb, also known as amalaki to Ayurvedic practitioners, is used as a general rebuilder for oral health. You might see amla listed as an ingredient on commercial mouth rinses; it can also be taken in capsules (1 to 2 g per day) for long-term tooth and gum health.
Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon). Components in cranberries have proven that, taken in sufficient dosages, they can make it tough for bacteria to stick to the digestive tract. Now they’re showing the potential to do the same for teeth. A test-tube study published in The Journal of the American Dental Association found that this component prevented human plaque bacteria from adhering to the teeth and clumping together to form a colony.
Green tea (Camellia sinensis). This antioxidant-packed herb may reduce cavities. Animal research from the past decade has identified a number of substances in green tea that may weaken the cavity-causing effects of bacteria, including Streptococcus mutans.
Gotu kola. Topically, this herb relieves inflammation and helps rebuild damaged skin tissue, so it’s a good one to look for in natural dental products. Gotu kola may help heal and rebuild gum pockets. You can also use the dried bulk herb in homemade gum packs; just moisten it with water, wrap in gauze, and apply to the gums. Gotu kola is known to holistic practitioners as a healer of connective tissue; many recommend its internal use for healing gum disease. They suggest steeping 1/2 oz. of the dried herb in one cup just-boiled water for at least an hour, and drinking one cup per day.
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). The berries of this plant are sold in Germany for treating minor mouth inflammations. Taken internally, it enhances microcirculation and stimulates the building of healthy collagen—the connective tissue in cells. A typical dosage is one 160-mg capsule (standardized to contain 25 percent anthocyanidins), three times per day.
Hawthorn. Another collagen-stabilizing herb, hawthorn helps reinforce connective tissue and prevents the release of inflammation-promoting compounds. A typical dosage of hawthorn in capsules is up to nine 500- to 600-mg capsules per day.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). This root is a gem for the mouth, as it promotes anticavity action, reduces plaque, and fights bacteria. You can use dried, powdered root in a gum pack; or try DGL tablets to chew and hold in the mouth.
Keeping your teeth by healing your gums
Nine months ago, herbalist Michele Bennett of Seattle received some bad news. Her mouth was full of gum disease, with a full set of pockets that averaged 9 to 9.5 mm. Faced with the prospect of undergoing periodontal treatment and bone grafting, Bennett instead began an intensive natural regime. She eliminated refined carbohydrates from her diet and added a serious flossing schedule.
Perhaps just as importantly, she used gotu kola mixed with castor oil as a daily gum pack and took gotu kola in capsules. Her gum pockets are healing, and now average 6 to 7 mm—enough progress to cause her dentist to hold off on the periodontal procedures. In fact, Bennett’s dentist was so encouraged that he asked her to consult with him on gum disease cases in his practice. And Bennett is confident that her gums are continuing to heal.
K. P. Singh Khalsa has more than twenty-five years of experience with medicinal herbs and specializes in Ayurvedic, Chinese, and North American healing traditions. He is a licensed dietitian/nutritionist, a massage therapist, and a board member of the American Herbalists Guild.
The reference list for this article is extensive. If you would like a copy, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to “Dentistry,” Herbs for Health, 243 E. Fourth St., Loveland, Colorado 80537-5655, or e-mail us at HerbsforHealth@HCPress.com.