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What can you do to restore the health of your teeth? We take an in-depth look at dental health


Can you restore the health of your teeth? We look at dental health

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Able to survive fire and the grave, your teeth are unique, identifying you like a fingerprint. Like the rings of a tree, they’re also a time capsule of information about your diet and lifestyle, reveals Debbie Guatelli-Steinberg in her 2016 book What Teeth Reveal About Human Evolution. Your pearly whites may contribute to a great smile, the shape of your face and the pronunciation of speech, but their most important function is to tear apart and grind down food for further breakdown and digestion in the stomach.

This frontline role in the digestive process also makes your teeth vulnerable. “Teeth are the only parts of our skeleton that interact directly with our environments,” Guatelli-Steinberg states. “A less well-appreciated fact is that, as parts of our anatomy, teeth are affected indirectly by changes occurring elsewhere in our bodies.”

To help protect them — against food, drink, microbes and other things in our mouths — our teeth have a tough enamel layer, an inbuilt, natural crown as such, that covers and protects the softer dentine structure beneath. Built to last a lifetime and the hardest substance in the human body, tooth enamel is 96 per cent mineral, primarily hydroxyapatite, a crystalline calcium phosphate.

Brushing techniques ... should be individualised in collaboration with your dentist and focus on the thought process behind why it’s important rather than just technique.

Yet, as a society, our teeth are in bad shape, with health experts reporting a global epidemic of dental problems. Over half the world’s population is affected by severe tooth decay (caused by the interaction of bacteria and sugar on tooth enamel) and gum disease, according to a 2013 study in The Journal of Dental Research.

A 2015 government report into oral health in Australia found that 30 per cent of Australians aged 25–44 have untreated tooth decay; 55 per cent of six-year-old children had experienced decay in baby teeth while 19 per cent of those 65 and over had no natural teeth left.

When it comes to public health policies, our teeth are treated, unlike the rest of our bodies, as a non-core, optional health item (they aren’t covered by Medicare). While dental health was the biggest health concern of those on low incomes (in a 2016 NCOSS survey), 38 per cent said they skipped on the dentist because of cost. Not helping matters, we tend to view our teeth as separate parts of the body rather than holistically in relation to our health, diet and lifestyle. For many of us, beyond brushing and flossing, the health of our teeth remains a mystery.

A systemic model of dentistry

Long before Colgate and the toothbrush, Indigenous Australians were free of dental decay. Weston Price’s monumental research (published 1939 in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration) discovered tooth decay was rare among indigenous peoples on traditional diets across the world. However, once they consumed the same modern diet as their “civilized” counterparts, their teeth became just as defective.

He attributed this to the amount of nutrient-poor processed food and sugar consumed by modern humans, which displaced nutrient-rich foods. Price analysed the diets of the indigenous peoples and found, compared to their modern equivalents, they contained dramatically higher proportions of fat-soluble vitamins (A, E, D and K), calcium and phosphorus, essential for strong, healthy teeth.

The microbiome of the mouth

Modern diets have also altered the composition and type of bacteria within our mouths. Dr Bill Kellner-Read, a Brisbane-based dental surgeon, speaker and author of Toxic Bite (2002), says scientists have analysed the tartar of early humans and found a “really healthy, varied number of bacteria”.

“Since the industrial revolution and the introduction of agriculture, our diet has changed. With it, the microbiome in the mouth has also changed,” he says, with pathogenic, acid-producing bacteria that contribute to tooth decay predominating.

“The research tends to show an increase in acidity in the mouth increases tooth decay. On the other side, a slightly more alkaline mouth predisposes us to gum disease.” Emerging research suggests probiotics may be useful as an oral health therapy.

Oral hygiene

Given our less-than-ideal diets, the fundamentals of good oral hygiene — brushing and flossing — remain important, Dr Kellner-Read says. While, ideally, we should brush after every meal, it’s about what’s practical. Brushing techniques have changed over the past 40 years, so these should be individualised in collaboration with your dentist and focus on the thought process behind why it’s important rather than just technique.

Brushing techniques ... should be individualised in collaboration with your dentist and focus on the thought process behind why it’s important rather than just technique.

“One of the things I often tell patients is you miss the same spot every time you brush your teeth. So use your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth for 30 seconds — that brings toothbrushing back under conscious control rather than unconscious control.” Interdental brushes are also useful for getting between the teeth.

Dr Kellner-Read suggests regular checkups every six months (every three months if you suffer from gum disease as calculus can grow back within three months). These are especially important as cancer screening is part of the protocol. “Dentistry is about prevention. An ounce of prevention could save you dollars in the long term, so make sure you get there early.”

Children

As information on tongue tie and a retruded lower jaw gain momentum, Dr Kellner-Read believes dentists will want to see children really early to rule out potential problems and educate on tooth brushing. “As parents, we assume the moment a child can hold a toothbrush they know how to use it. If you look at the levels of dexterity of a lot of children you have to question whether or not they’re really able to brush their teeth.”

He suggests parents be involved in tooth brushing at least until the age of eight. “As they get older, teach them to floss as that gets between the teeth.”

In tribal cultures, conception was taken very seriously: Weston Price observed women being taken away to eat a very specific diet to ensure maximum health before conceiving.” Dr Kellner-Read says research shows the same bacteria that we have in our mouths turn up in the placenta.

“Harmful bacteria are being introduced into baby very early in life. Research has also shown that women with periodontal disease are more likely to have a low-weight pre-term baby. If you want to have children, get that mouth absolutely 100 per cent before you do.”

The inter-connected body

The holistic model of dentistry looks at the impact of the mouth on the rest of the body and vice versa. Recognising the body as a whole, consideration is given to issues as varied as diet, tongue position, ear health, headaches, neck and back pain, bite, the growth of the upper and lower jaw, respiratory function, sleep, snoring, habits such as thumb-sucking, and whether or not the person is a mouth or nose breather. For example, “If they’re a mouth breather then they’re more likely to get tooth decay,” Dr Kellner-Read says.

“In order to keep your teeth and gums healthy, they need to be used ... So chewing food helps, especially harder foods like raw carrots, apples, nuts.”

“Is crowding a sign you’ve got too many teeth or a sign you haven’t grown sufficiently? In my opinion, God didn’t get it wrong. If we were meant to have 32 teeth then the question is, why are we not growing big enough to accommodate all our teeth?”

Anthropologists like Guatelli-Steinberg believe human jaws have adapted to a softer diet by reducing in size to the point that our teeth, which are genetically programmed, no longer fit in our mouths. She reports that impacted wisdom teeth are 10 times more common since the Industrial Revolution than previously. Dentistry is now recognising that an overcrowded mouth, high palate and jaw size are contributing factors for sleep apnea, Dr Kellner-Read says.

Demineralisation

While we’ve all heard of tooth decay, it’s less known that our teeth can demineralise. Demineralisation (the loss of minerals from our teeth) can occur from a range of external and internal factors, including existing health problems, diet and medication.

“Erosion and carious lesions are the two main consequences of demineralisation,” according to a research review in the International Journal of Nanomedicine, 2016. Erosion refers to loss of tooth surface. Eroded teeth become softer and weaker, are more likely to crack or chip and are more susceptible to dental caries.

The study authors attribute the rise in tooth erosion to widespread consumption of acidic and sugary soft drinks and juices, which they note are “thought to be over half of all of the liquids consumed”. Many health issues (gastro-esophageal reflux, bulimia nervosa and alcoholism, for example) also contribute to acidity in the mouth.

While saliva is able to neutralise these acids (it’s also anti-bacterial, cleansing and a source of protective minerals) its production can be hampered by many things, including medications, smoking and alcohol. Fortunately, they reveal, “Demineralisation is a reversible process.”

Healing your teeth naturally

Dagmar Ganser, a naturopath at True Medicine clinic in Queensland with 17 years clinical experience, says she’s seen evidence of clients who’ve healed their teeth and gums through diet and supplementation. “We can re-strengthen pretty much any part of our body. Our teeth aren’t static. They’re not dead. They’ve got roots; they’re connected to our gums; they’re connected to our blood supply. It’s the same as when people say their hair is falling out. It’s an expression of the entire body’s condition. We’re nutritionally deficient, we’re over-acidic, we’re highly toxic.”

She believes a major consideration in improving our oral health is balancing the pH of the “whole” body. “Our blood has a very narrow range of pH. When our bodies become too acidic, minerals such as calcium are drawn from storage in our teeth and bones to balance our internal pH. Our body has to use something to alkalise and it uses minerals.” Acidity of the body is also associated with lower oxygenation of tissue and impaired wound healing, she adds.

Ganser suggests a diet based on fresh, locally sourced, unsprayed, wholefoods to supply all the nutrients the body needs. Avoid sugar, processed foods, wheat, grains, alcohol, soft drinks, caffeinated drinks, stress and a toxic environment — these all contribute to acidity in the body, she says. “Greens are especially alkalising. Every single meal should contain vegetables, and every plate should be a rainbow.”

Supplement

Given nutrient deficiency is extremely common, supplementation may be necessary. For instance, 73 per cent of females did not meet the minimum dietary requirement for calcium, according to the 2012 Australian Health Survey. However, calcium supplementation alone is not enough: the health of our teeth is dependent on many nutrients and parts of our bodies, including the endocrine glands, gut and liver.

Weston Price prioritised the fat-soluble vitamins D and A (for their key role in bone health) and prescribed cod liver oil (high in both) as well as foods rich in calcium, phosphorus and other minerals.

Ganser recommends celloid minerals for their bioavailability to the body and advises always taking supplemental calcium in calcium phosphate form. “For example, calcium carbonate is very difficult for our body to absorb properly. Consult a qualified naturopath before supplementing in order to maintain a healthy balance between all the minerals.”

This should include silica, “a calcium re-organiser, so you will never get any calcium buildup”, she says, adding, “We need everything. We’re eating more than ever, but we’re starving to death.”

Environmental and other factors

Ganser suggests a minimum of about six months to see improvements to tooth enamel. If problems continue, seek complete professional assessment from someone able to look at the whole body, including hormone balance, other health issues, medications and heavy metal toxicity that might interfere with mineral absorption.

For example, lead blocks the absorption of calcium, while aluminium blocks magnesium, she says. “Lead will actually displace calcium in the bones where calcium should be. And that can be in our body since conception. You can have a really good diet but it’s not going anywhere. Most toxins in one way or another block out the absorption or metabolism of nutrients.

There are so many other things that come into play, with insufficient sunlight (vitamin D) plus smoking and recreational drug use among a long list of factors that can affect our oral health.

Chew

“In order to keep your teeth and gums healthy, they need to be used,” Ganser says, “so chewing food helps, especially harder foods like raw carrots, apples, nuts. Chewing stimulates circulation to the gums. Anywhere you have good circulation, the flesh stays healthy. You have healthy gums, you have healthy teeth.

When you think about the foods we mostly consume, they’re mostly soft. In recent research, they’ve shown chewing helps reduce the incidence of dementia.” Illustrating our teeth’s connectedness to the rest of us, “It doesn’t just help the teeth and the gums it helps the entire head.”

 

High calcium foods

According to naturopath Dagmar Ganser, foods with the highest calcium content include sesame seeds and kelp (both contain over 1g of calcium per 100g) and green vegies (kale, silverbeet, broccoli and watercress provide the highest levels). Other sources include almonds, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, buckwheat, flaxseeds (these must be ground), organic (GMO free) soy beans, mung beans, chickpeas, molasses, eggs (particularly the yolk), buckwheat and, for those who can digest dairy, organic cheddar cheese and natural yoghurt are also good sources.



 

Linda Moon

Linda Moon is a freelance feature writer reporting on health, travel, food and local producers, work, parenting, relationships and other lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in International Traveller, Voyeur (Virgin Airlines magazine), Jetstar Asia, Slow Living, Traveller, Domain, My Career, Life & Style and Sunday Life (Sydney Morning Herald), Sprout, NZ Journal of Natural Medicine, Nature & Health, Australian Natural Health, Fernwood Fitness, The New Daily, SBS, Essential Kids, Australian Family, Weekend Notes, The Big Bus Tour & Travel Guide and more.

Based in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, Linda is a qualified and experienced naturopath, spa and massage therapist and a partly trained social worker.

Her writing interests focus on health, responsible consumerism, exploring beautiful places and the quest for a fairer, healthier and happier world for all.