Whitening toothpastes. Mouthwashes. Home bleaching kits. There is certainly no shortage of products available to whiten teeth and freshen breath. We are a nation obsessed with the appearance of our mouths. But the focus of all this obsession might be misplaced: paying attention to our teeth and mouths is far more than just a cosmetic concern.
Research shows that our overall well-being is clearly linked to the condition of our teeth and gums. By cultivating good dental health habits — and with the help of herbs known to promote healthy teeth and gums — we can prevent tooth decay, gum disease and even heart disease. As a bonus, we’ll have whiter teeth and fresher breath!
Primary Causes of Dental Troubles
According to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, almost 75 percent of U.S. adults older than 35 have some form of gum disease. It’s long been known that gum disease can cause serious dental problems, including tooth loss. But in the past decade, gum disease has been linked to other health concerns, including heart attacks, strokes, respiratory diseases and premature births.
These problems arise from the bacteria (specifically Streptococcus mutans) contained in plaque, a sticky, colorless film that forms on teeth. This bacteria can travel throughout the bloodstream, triggering the development of gum disease or worsening existing conditions. For example, inflammatory compounds produced by the body’s reaction to the bacteria stimulate the buildup of cholesterol in the arteries. Researchers have found that periodontal (gum) disease almost doubles the risk of coronary artery disease. Bacteria in the mouth also can be inhaled into the lungs, where the germs multiply, potentially causing respiratory infections such as pneumonia. Studies of pregnant women with gum disease show they are up to seven times more likely to have a premature or underweight baby.
Signs that you might have gum disease include sore or bleeding gums, bad breath or receding gums. Gingivitis, an early stage of gum disease, is an inflammation and infection of the gums. Most of the time, gingivitis can be reversed with daily brushing and flossing to remove bacteria, and twice-yearly professional cleanings. But if gingivitis is left untreated, it can lead to periodontitis. At this more serious stage of gum disease, the gum pulls away from the teeth and forms pockets. Food debris and bacteria collect in the pockets, and plaque spreads below the gum line. Infection beneath the gums breaks down the bone and connective tissue that anchor the teeth. If left untreated, periodontal disease results in tooth loss.
Tooth decay is another major dental health concern. Although most people associate cavities with childhood, decay is a serious problem for adults, too. When gums recede, vulnerable tooth roots are exposed to the bacteria that cause decay. According to the American Dental Association, the majority of people older than 50 suffer from tooth-root decay. In addition, decay around the edges of fillings is a common problem for adults because as fillings weaken and crack, bacteria gain access to the tooth.
A Healthy Mouth in a 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.
As much as possible, avoid the sugars and refined carbohydrates that feed bacteria, including certain foods that are generally considered healthy, especially fruit juices, dried fruit, crackers and pretzels. If you eat these foods, make sure to brush your teeth afterward. Healthier choices that don’t promote bacterial growth include fresh fruits, raw vegetables, cheeses and nuts.
It’s also important to drink plenty of water (at least six glasses daily) to stay well-hydrated. This keeps mouth tissues moist and helps prevent bacterial overgrowth and bad breath. Avoid carbonated soft drinks, which not only are loaded with large amounts of sweeteners but generally also contain phosphoric acid or citric acid, which can erode tooth enamel. Tea, however — in particular, green tea — contains compounds called polyphenols that have been shown to inhibit the growth of oral bacteria. To keep teeth and gums healthy, drink two to three cups of green tea daily.
An exception to the rule that sweets are bad for your teeth is a low-calorie sugar called xylitol. Made from birch trees, xylitol has been shown in studies to actually help prevent tooth decay and gum disease. Sugar-free chewing gums and mints are often made with xylitol. For best results, use xylitol gum or mints three to five times a day, following each meal or snack. A note of caution, though: In amounts larger than recommended, xylitol can cause diarrhea.
In addition to eating a healthful diet, certain supplements are especially beneficial for dental health. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) improves circulation to the gums and can help prevent gum disease. Take 60 to 100 mg daily in capsule form. A deficiency of vitamin C can cause gum disease, loose teeth and tooth loss. Make sure you’re getting at least 200 mg of vitamin C every day, but avoid chewable vitamin C tablets because ascorbic acid can erode tooth enamel. Also make sure you’re getting 1,000 mg or more of calcium daily, from foods or supplements. Calcium is necessary for building and maintaining healthy teeth as well as many other essential physiological functions. If blood levels of calcium fall, the body draws calcium stores from the jaw, which can result in tooth loss.
The Art of Brushing and Flossing
There’s no question that failing to brush and floss greatly increases the risk of tooth decay and gum disease. But overzealous tooth brushing, a hard-bristled toothbrush or an overly abrasive toothpaste also creates problems.
Brushing too hard can wear away tooth enamel, erode gums and cause tooth sensitivity. Instead, place the toothbrush at a 45-degree angle to your teeth and brush your teeth and gums with a gentle, circular motion. If you’re using an electric toothbrush, place the brush halfway between the gums and teeth and let the machine do the work. To adequately clean your teeth, dentists recommend brushing for two full minutes. Don’t forget to brush your tongue to remove the bacteria that cause bad breath and plaque.
To prevent damage to tooth enamel and gums, use the softest toothbrush you can find. Replace it at least every three months and also following an illness such as a cold or the flu. To further soften a new toothbrush, run it under hot water for a few seconds before brushing.
Most toothpaste is a combination of detergents, abrasives and sweeteners. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is frequently used as a cleanser and foaming agent in conventional and natural toothpastes. Recently, research studies have shown that toothpaste that contains SLS is linked to recurrent aphthous ulcers (more commonly known as canker sores). Natural toothpaste brands are available that don’t contain SLS, or you can make your own simple and effective toothpaste (see “Natural Toothpaste” on Page 37).
Fluoride is added to most toothpastes because it has been shown to prevent tooth decay. However, controversy exists over the safety of fluoride because it has been linked to immune dysfunction and other diseases. If you’d rather not use fluoride, many natural brands of fluoride-free toothpaste are available (or again, you can make your own).
No matter how carefully you brush your teeth, bacteria hide between the teeth and under the gum line, where your toothbrush can’t reach. Flossing is the best way to remove hidden bacteria. Floss between and around each tooth, curving the floss around the tooth and gently under the gum line.
Rinsing your mouth daily with sage tea helps to tighten gums and eliminate bacteria. Infuse 1 teaspoon of sage leaves in 1 cup of water for 10 minutes, cool, and use as a rinse. Sea salt also has gum-tightening and mild antiseptic properties. Dissolve 1 teaspoon of sea salt in 1 cup of warm water and use as a mouthwash.
Whiten Your Pearlies 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 tooth 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 and Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).