“The tooth has always been accorded a special, even magical, role among all peoples and at all times, and has stood for power, and its loss for loss of power” – Kunzle, 1989
The importance of oral health to overall health and well-being cannot be overstated. An effective oral health regime normally includes brushing the teeth twice daily, flossing often, and seeing a dentist for a routine cleaning once every six months. While these are all important steps to take, there are other dimensions to oral health that we can examine in light of its role as an early indicator of disease. Here we will discuss the connection between oral and general health, how oral health fits into a greater sociocultural context, and some time-tested natural remedies that can be used to enhance dental health on a regular basis.
In examining the connection of oral to overall health, the interconnectedness of bodily systems plays a large role. Procedures such as acupuncture or reflexology speak to this interconnectivity. In the same way that each section of the foot is correlated to a specific organ in reflexology, the Journal of Ayurveda Integrative Medicine proposes that each section of the tongue is also correlated with a different organ or system. Furthermore, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research argue that, as the key entry point for toxins into the body, the mouth can have a significant impact on the onset or management of numerous diseases. For instance, several peer-reviewed research studies have shown associations between dental disease and diabetes, cardiovascular health, and adverse pregnancy outcomes. Periodontitis (gum disease) in particular has been called the “sixth complication of diabetes” (Loe, 1993) while certain bacteria in the saliva may be an early indicator of cardiovascular disease (Wu et al, 2000). Other indicators of disease found orally include the texture of the tongue, swollen glands, oral lesions, and erosion of the enamel. These oral biomarkers can be an early indicator for anything from vitamin deficiencies (a smooth tongue) to viral infections (swollen glands) to osteoporosis (oral bone loss).
The use of saliva to test for a range of biomarkers further speaks to oral health as an indicator of overall health. Saliva can reveal hormone levels in the body, the presence or absence of antibiotics, and can even be used as a method of gene sequencing. Dental disease further impacts diet by altering the amount and variety of foods that are consumed. A reduced appetite can lead to weight loss or under nutrition, while those with false teeth or dentures have 30-40 percent less chewing capacity meaning foods with less fiber and lower nutrient density. All of these factors can then have continued adverse effects on overall health.
While oral health has a considerable impact on physical outcomes, it plays a role in a larger sociocultural context as well. In 1948, the World Health Organization defined health as a “complete state of physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of infirmity.” Within this definition of health, one must also be free of mental disorders and be able to participate fully in society. With the face playing such a significant role in our identity, dental disorders or disfigurations can have a serious impact on the ability to communicate or maintain a positive self-image. Such factors ultimately lead to depression, anxiety and decreased quality of life, and essentially a reduction in overall health. Moreover, oral health historically played an important role in social status. Many scholars have studied the link between diseased teeth and a perception of weakness, impotence or even moral failings. Undeniably, healthy teeth today are still associated with the redeeming quality of personal hygiene, while teeth that are allowed to decay have the opposite effect.
With both the medical as well as the sociocultural argument for maintaining oral health, let us now turn to some natural remedies for doing so. Apart from a regular regimen as earlier described, Ayurveda medicine provides additional methods for ensuring your teeth are always kept in top form. One of the most well-known of these is oil pulling. Oil pulling is the process of heating 1-2 Tbsp of oil (usually sesame or coconut) and swishing over the teeth and gums for 2-3 minutes each morning. While yet to be scientifically proven, many claim that oil pulling can cure up to 30 systemic diseases ranging from chronic headaches to diabetes to asthma. The process by which oil pulling works lies in the ability of the oil to ‘pull’ toxins from the mouth and stimulate the vagus nerve which is related to digestion. While some reports claim you have to ‘pull’ for up to 20 minutes, Ayurveda practitioners say that up to 5 minutes is sufficient. The most important thing to remember with oil pulling is to spit out the oil afterwards versus ingesting the toxins that you have just removed. Whether or not the curative claims of oil pulling are fully verified, coconut oil in particular can help to whiten the teeth if used over time. Additionally, many report increased mental clarity and energy as another beneficial side effect of oil pulling.
Other remedies for oral health include using fresh, astringent herbs as part of your regular routine. In India, the birthplace of Ayurveda medicine some 3000-5000 years ago, people chewed on the branch of the neem tree for centuries to clean the gums and teeth. Neem acts as anti-bacterial agent and helps to reduce plaque, which is a build-up of bacteria, acids and food particles in the mouth. In a 1994 study, testing the antiplaque efficacy of neem versus commercial toothpaste, neem was found to be the more effective of the two. You can often find neem extract in toothpastes at your local health foods store. Tongue scraping is another method used regularly removes bacteria and toxins that can build up on the tongue over time. Finally, drinking a glass of water to rinse the mouth before and after meals is a recommended method to cleanse excess food particles and bacteria on a regular basis.
Of course, diet is always an important factor as well. Maintaining an alkaline environment in the body will help to keep calcium levels high thus contributing to healthy teeth. The more acidic the body is from eating a diet high in animal products, namely meat and dairy, the more the body has to compensate by pulling calcium from bone tissue. Ultimately, maintaining maximum oral health is one of the best steps you can take to ensure continued overall health year after year, not to mention impressing your dentist the next time you visit!