Tooth decay and gum disease are widespread throughout the Western world in spite of the availability of high-tech toothbrushes, and 'scientifically proven' toothpastes and mouthwashes. Brushing incorrectly or not often enough is one cause, but poor dental health is also a matter of lifestyle. The end result isn't just bad teeth. Dental problems are linked to a range of disorders, from heart disease to osteoporosis.
With this in mind, it is worth implementing a few natural strategies for keeping your teeth and gums healthy. Each of these 'treatments' should be used for a minimum of two months to determine whether they are effective or not.
* Eat whole, unprocessed foods. Several dietary factors have been implicated in tooth decay. Most of them - refined flours, inactivation of vitamins by processing and heating, and high sugar levels - are due to highly processed foods. In contrast, fresh foods contain many of the nutritional elements necessary to maintain good oral health.
* Use an alcohol-free mouthwash, as alcohol dries the mouth, thereby allowing invasive bacteria to take hold. Mouth-washes containing folic acid (0.1 per cent) may combat bleeding gums, and 4 mg/ day of folic acid in capsule or tablet form can also be effective (J Periodontol, 1976; 47: 667-8). Mouthwashes containing herbal extracts such as chamomile, Echinacea and myrrh may be particularly effective.
* Avoid environmental toxins. Finnish researchers found that dioxin exposure via breastmilk and food can result in chalky lesions on the teeth and loss of enamel in children (Lancet, 1999; 353: 206). Lead is similarly damaging (Nat Med, 1997; 9: 1024-5).
* Minimise your drug-taking regime, as drugs can affect your oral health. Antidepressants reduce saliva levels, which can lead to tooth decay in adults (Lancet, 1995; 346: 1640). Lowering the dose, chewing sugar-free gum or taking extra vitamin C can help. The birth-control pill can lead to an increased risk of gum disease by encouraging bacterial growth in the mouth (Contraception, 1998; 57: 381-4).
* Consume green and black teas, which both contain flavonoids that inhibit the growth and activity of the bacteria associated with tooth decay (Arch Pharm Res, 1998; 21: 348-52). Tea also contains natural fluoride, which may be helpful.
* If you must eat sweets, use sugar substitutes such as sorbitol and xylitol, which appear to have anticaries benefits (Am J Dent, 1996; 9: 184-90). Of the two, xylitol-containing chewing gum appears to be more beneficial than sorbitol-containing gum, which can also cause flatulence.
* Replace your toothbrush regularly - at least every month. Worn toothbrush heads are less efficient at removing food and plaque, and can lead to tooth decay and gingivitis (gum inflammation).
* Improve your brushing technique. Brush every day, ideally after each meal, using five to 10 strokes in all areas - downwards on the upper teeth and upwards on the bottom ones, and with circular brushing movements across the upper surfaces of the back teeth.
* Supplement with a good-quality multivitamin/mineral. This will make up for any dietary deficiencies and provide useful amounts of nutrients, such as zinc and selenium, necessary to maintain a vigorous immune system that can fight off dental bacteria.
In addition, take:
* Coenzyme Q10 (50 mg/day) to avoid bleeding gums (Res Commun Chem Pathol Pharmacol, 1976; 14: 715-9)
* Vitamin C, as a deficiency can increase your risk of gum disease. Taking just 70 mg/day can quickly improve gum-tissue health (Int J Vitam Nutr Res, 1982; 52: 333-41) - but only in those who are vitamin C-deficient.
* B-complex vitamins, which aid tissue integrity. B6, in particular, has long been known to encourage beneficial mouth bacteria while decreasing those that cause decay (NY State Dent J, 1959; 25: 303-7). Aim for 10-20 mg daily.