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Beyond the toothbrush
When I was little, probably around five years old, I lost almost all of my baby teeth because of terrible cavities. When I entered first grade at school, I already had a mouth full of permanent teeth and also two mercury fillings. My teeth were crooked because there was an extra tooth growing in behind my front teeth, which made them deformed. They basically did not fit in my little mouth at that time and some of them had to be pulled out. My brother, who is only a year younger, never had dental problems. His mouth was (and still is) full of healthy, strong, and white teeth, even though we both had the same diet as kids and we share the same genes from our parents (and to make it even less fair for me, his dental hygiene was never really thorough, very often he just wet his toothbrush to trick our mom into thinking that he had brushed his teeth in the morning). Very soon I had to get more dental fillings, reaching a total number of seven, and also braces. I never had a sweet tooth as a child, so I didn’t understand why I still kept getting cavities that were so deep and had to be painfully removed by a dentists drill. Oh the pain, oh the fear.
To this day, I fear the dentist. Each time they drilled into my poor enamel, I promised myself I would take better care of my teeth. I will brush after each meal, I will floss, use mouthwash religiously, and always use the best possible toothpaste. But my teeth never got better, until I started seeing dental health as part of a bigger picture as a piece of a puzzle called general health. I discovered a few techniques that improved my dental health and I realized that brushing alone is very often just like taking a pill it might cover the symptoms (in this case remove the tooth plaque), but not address the cause. I don’t know anyone who enjoys visits to the dentist we don’t usually see them to show off our pearly whites, right? Lets take a closer look at our dental health, so next time we are sitting in the waiting room and hear the sound of a drill from the office, we can stay calm and not panic. Lets bite into it!
IT STARTS IN THE MOUTH
There are basically two gateways into our bodies, two ways through which we allow things to enter. One of them is our skin, as we already discussed in previous posts, and our mouth is the second option. Through the food we eat, drinks we sip, and even the medicine and supplements we take orally, we allow all kinds of particles to enter our system, not just important nutrients, minerals, and vitamins. Toxins can enter our bodies along with food, water, and air, just like they would with skincare products. Even though we can control what we ingest, very often we don’t know the whole story behind what we are actually ingesting. Toxins, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, and mold can be present in the food we eat, but that is not the only danger we face.
Just like the gut, our mouth is full of different kinds of bacteria, some good, some bad. And just like in the gut, bacteria need the right kind of fuel to be able to grow, reproduce, and create big colonies. And similar to bad/unhelpful gut bacteria, microorganisms in the mouth thrive on sugar. Regular intake of sugar keeps the bacteria population alive and growing, producing acids as a byproduct of sugar consumption. These acids are very harsh on our tooth enamel they eat away at it, get deeper into the tooth, and create a cavity or tooth decay. Our saliva contains minerals that are used to repair the initial damage and actually fix the enamel, while the damage is still only on the surface level. But once the acid gets through the enamel, there is no other solution than mechanical removal of the decay (back to the dentists office). So as you may have guessed, prevention is the most effective way to avoid dental caries and cavities.
FEED THE TEETH
In 1939, an American dentist Weston A. Price published a paper called Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, where he described the connection between oral health and the dietary habits of different cultures around the world. He dedicated his work to studying diet as a primary factor in tooth decay. His work is well respected to this day, and his discoveries created the foundation of the way we see dental health today. We all have probably heard that calcium is a mineral critical for healthy bones and teeth, and we are recommended to increase our calcium intake as much as possible with dairy products and green vegetables rich in this important mineral. While calcium itself is an important mineral, it still is only a part of the story. Prices research showed that without the proper intake of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K2 (and of course a reasonable amount of healthy fats to go with them), our body is not able to properly store and distribute calcium to where it needs to be (in bones and teeth instead of hardening arteries). Without these vitamins, it doesn’t matter how much calcium you get, your body will never be able to use it and it will just leave your body via urine, or form deposits in the body that make tissues harder than they should be.
Eating a nutrient dense diet is very important for all the systems in the body, and our mouth is basically the beginning of the digestive system. Without a healthy digestive system, there is no way we can access and absorb nutrients from our food. See the connection here? If your body isn’t able to absorb nutrients properly, it doesn’t really matter how much of them you eat. Diseases like Celiac, Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s, and leaky gut are usually accompanied by dental problems, because as you might now understand, all these autoimmune related diseases are connected to poor digestive health. It is amazing how interconnected things are in the body and it is yet another proof that we have to see our body as a whole, not just focus on one specific system, organ, or muscle group. Incidentally, a diet that is rich in minerals and vitamins, healthy fats, proteins, and carbohydrates is the same type of diet that supports gut health, as well as the overall health of your body and mind. Heal your gut first, and the rest will follow!
Assuming that allergies don’t prevent you from eating such things, the best foods for your dental health will include grass-fed butter and dairy, as well as grass-fed meat (these are the best sources of vitamin K2 which helps to distribute calcium in the body), wild-caught fatty fish like salmon, organ meats like liver, heart, or even tongue, healthy fats like coconut oil, olive oil, or lard, and mineral rich vegetables (particularly dark leafy greens). Avoid sugar as much as you can to stop feeding the bad bacteria in your mouth, particularly in forms that stick to your teeth. Vitamin D is also an essential nutrient for tissue health, including skin, hair, bones, and teeth. We talked about sources of vitamin D here in Nutrition for the skin, but you can adopt these tips to address oral health as well. Healing your gut should always be your primary priority, especially if you are dealing with autoimmune issues, malabsorption, or digestive problems. Genetics also play a huge role, as well as the different metabolic needs of different individuals (that would explain why my brother and I have such different dental experiences even with similar diet, genetics, and lifestyle).
READ YOUR LABELS, AS ALWAYS
Brushing and flossing our teeth has probably been a regular part of our daily routine since we grew our first teeth. I remember using a strawberry flavored toothpaste as a child, before we slowly transitioned to a more adult paste with a mint flavor. I can understand now that sweeter toothpaste is more appealing to children and they might even be looking forward to brushing their teeth because of that sweetness. But most store bought dental care products contain all kinds of chemicals that are supposed to promote dental health, but in reality they can cause all kinds of trouble, and not just in your mouth. We discussed all these harmful chemicals here, so I highly suggest you go over the ingredients list on your tube or bottle to see what you are dealing with.
The other day I had a conversation with a friend who just recently became a mother, and she surprised me (not in a good way) by saying: But that would mean reading and checking all the labels on every single item! Yes, if overall health is a priority to you, it really means checking all the labels, all the time. Nobody said that the journey to health is easy to achieve or that it will not require any effort in the process, but the result, keeping yourself and your loved ones safe and healthy, is without a question worth every minute spent by reading a list of chemicals on the back of your mouth wash bottle. You would not drink a bottle of shampoo, right? We need to realize that the way chemicals are absorbed into our bloodstream through our skin is not that different from eating them directly; they are poisonous and dangerous either way and they do affect our immune and endocrine health.
DIY ORAL CARE
With oral care products, there actually is a significant chance of swallowing a small amount of them, and this is especially true of children (I ate a small amount of that strawberry flavored paste on purpose many times), so we should pay even more attention to ingredients in our toothpaste. There are some clean and safe options available, all you need is the ability to read your labels properly. We can recommend Jason Natural Powersmile toothpaste, Dessert Essence natural toothpaste and also Redmont Earthpaste (this one is a bit more abrasive, so we don’t recommend it if you have sensitive teeth) from our own experience and there are also plenty of recipes for homemade toothpastes or powders. This is the one I use at home now, it is very easy to make, inexpensive and lasts for a long time. We use xylitol instead of stevia to sweeten it a little bit (baking soda has a really salty taste that can be offputting for some people), a natural sweetener derived from birch trees that is often used in natural dental care for its health benefits. Baking soda has mild abrasive properties that don’t damage tooth enamel (though you may want to be careful when combining it with an electric toothbrush), it works as an odor neutralizer, and it naturally whitens your teeth; this study even shows that baking soda is very effective for plaque removal. There also is an interesting study showing that brushing without toothpaste might actually be more effective than using toothpaste, which might make you think Do we even need that Colgate Extra Whitening tube in the bathroom?
Choosing the right toothbrush can also be a gamechanger. Electric toothbrushes like Sonicare are very popular with dentists in North America, there are affordable versions available as well as more sophisticated models with tons of accessories like replaceable heads, charger and UV sanitizer. If you don’t like the idea of an electric device, try a bamboo eco-friendly toothbrush and if you need something on the go, try chewsticks! These wooden toothpick-like sticks were developed with the idea of traditional cultures that used small pieces of wood from trees like tea tree, neem, or miswak that have antimicrobial properties. This modern version is made of birch and infused with tea tree oil. A study from 2003 found that chewing sticks remove more plaque than toothbrushes. Stronger, whiter, and brighter teeth are not just about the toothpaste!
Speaking of whitening, there are a few ways to gradually and naturally whiten and brighten your teeth with a few simple ingredients. We already mentioned baking soda in the toothpaste. Another method that uses baking soda is simply mixing a little bit of soda with water or coconut oil, adding a drop of cinnamon or oregano essential oil, and using this mixture instead of store bought toothpaste. It might be hard to believe, but turmeric is also an amazing whitener. It might stain everything it touches, but it helps to remove stains from your enamel. Chewing a small piece of fresh turmeric root or adding turmeric powder to your homemade toothpaste recipe, and using it every day will slowly make your teeth whiter and brighter without the use of chemicals or UV light devices that cost a fortune (and very often don’t even work as the marketing claims promise). Strawberries contain malic acid that also removes stains, so mashing one strawberry with some baking soda will create a fizzy concoction that is also helpful for teeth whitening.
The last and probably the most unbelievable teeth whitener is activated charcoal. It is my personal favorite, even though it can be very messy. Activated charcoal powder has the ability to pull toxins from your teeth and bind to them, it also helps to remove bacteria from your tongue and gums. Using charcoal is simple just dip your wet toothbrush into the powder and brush it all over your mouth, teeth, and gums. Brushing itself is not the most important part here, it only serves to distribute the powder to all areas, the charcoal itself with do the work. When I first tried this method, it looked really scary. The inside of your mouth will turn completely black and you might think it will never go away. Don’t worry, I promise your teeth will not be stained black forever. You only need one minute of activated charcoal action and then rinse well with water, thoroughly enough to remove the residual charcoal. Sometimes, a little bit of residual charcoal can stay in between your teeth, this will go away as you drink, eat or simply produce saliva in your mouth, but if you feel uncomfortable with the idea of leaving the house with leftover charcoal ruining your smile, you can follow with regular brushing and/or flossing to remove the residue. Because of the staining effect of charcoal, I recommend using an extra toothbrush dedicated only to charcoal brushing (the same thing applies to turmeric powder). You can read more details (and watch the video, so you know what you are getting yourself into!) in this great post by Wellness Mama!
A post about dental care would not be complete without a few words on oil pulling. This is an ancient method of swishing oil in the mouth for 15-20 minutes to remove bad bacteria from your teeth. This is a very simple description, but the point of oil pulling is this: as we learned in our post about Oil cleansing, oils attract oils. Microorganisms like bacteria in our mouth are covered in lipids (fats). Rinsing our mouth with water doesn’t wash the bacteria away, we know oils and water don’t mix together, but rather they separate from each other. When you swish oil around in your mouth, however, it helps you to collect all the bad bacteria in your mouth, on your tongue, and in between your teeth and spit them out with the cleansing oil. Using a high quality oil also helps to nourish your gums. This method is most effective when performed in the morning, when the concentration of bacteria in the mouth is the highest, and preferably on an empty stomach, before some of the bacteria get ingested with your breakfast as you chew and swallow it.
Supporters of this method agree that coconut oil works the best for oil pulling, because of the number of benefits this miracle fat has. I like to add a few drops of cinnamon oil to my batch, oil of oregano is another option with antibacterial properties (and it will keep your mouth feeling super fresh!). Just take a spoonful of the oil of your choice (coconut, olive, or even sesame) and swish it around for 15-20 minutes. Try not to swallow any. After the time is up, spit it out (I recommend spitting it out in the garbage instead of the sink, as daily spitting of these oils can clog your bathroom pipes) and rinse your mouth with water, or brush with the paste of your choice. Twenty minutes might seem like a long time, and I have to admit I avoided this method for a long time because the idea of walking around my apartment with a mouth full of oil for that long didn’t seem very appealing to me, but once I started practicing this regularly, I noticed a big change in my oral health. If you are new to natural dental care, like the idea of oil pulling, or need a serious health intervention, I would suggest you try to oil pull twice a day, but practicing this method only in the morning is a wonderful start. There are no real studies behind oil pulling and most of the reported benefits are anecdotal, but we are all about personal experience and individual experimenting, and we welcome your own stories in the comments below this post! But the one thing everybody can agree on is that swishing a healthy fat around your mouth has zero risks or negative side effects, so it is definitely worth trying!
Where should I start? What is the best option for me? There is no universal answer to these questions, except one: Throw away that fluoride based toothpaste and mouthwash full of ingredients you cant pronounce. Whether you choose to make your own toothpaste or buy a pre-made natural one, or stick with oil pulling exclusively, the choice is yours and it should always fit your current needs and lifestyle. If you have to leave the house five minutes after getting up, oil pulling will probably not be your first choice, but a homemade toothpaste might be it. Remember that a healthy mouth, just like healthy skin, is the result of a healthy digestive system and one system in the body does not work properly without the others they are all beautifully interconnected. I hope this small puzzle piece will fit into your health picture and make it once again a little more complete!