Healthy Smile

Keeping your pearly whites as bright as can be may reduce your cancer risk.

by Eric Schneider

May 2013

The mouth is the body’s front door, the point where food, water and other substances gain access to our internal workings. So it’s no wonder that conventional wisdom has long associated oral health with overall wellness.

A number of studies, particularly those conducted during the past few decades, has linked poor dental care with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and various other ailments. For example, Japanese scientists have found that a species of bacteria commonly found in diseased gums appears to speed the development of atherosclerosis (Journal of Dental Research 3/13).

Now a group of Swedish researchers have found an association between dental plaque—a sticky bacterial film that forms on the teeth—and an elevated risk of cancer death (BMJ Open 6/11/12 online). The investigation, which covered more than 24 years and involved some 1,400 people, linked excessive amounts of plaque to an 80% increased chance of death due to cancer. The team wrote, “The high bacterial load on tooth surfaces and in gingival (gum) pockets over a prolonged time may indeed play
a role in carcinogenesis (cancer development).”

While the study didn’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship, the implications are sobering.

Risky Plaque

So what might be the key factors in this association? A long-standing medical theory suggests that poor oral care allows bacteria in the mouth to enter the circulatory system, where it could contribute to the creation of plaque in the arteries. A variation on this concept has experts looking at the relationship between gum disease and the immune system.

Dominique Michaud, ScD, associate professor of epidemiology at Brown University, has conducted research that examines the correlation between periodontal disease and cancer risk. She acknowledges that any connection between the two is still speculation, but “most likely related to immune response and immune function, which may be partly genetic susceptibility and partly environmental factors impacting immune response.”

Since immune function is closely related to inflammation, and inflammation is a telltale sign of many chronic illnesses, it’s not hard to see how lines are drawn from oral problems to overall health issues.

Natural Oral Health

Brushing and flossing your teeth every day is the best way to control dental plaque. Ramiel Nagel, dental-health advocate and the author of Cure Tooth Decay: Remineralize Cavities and Repair Your Teeth Naturally with GoodFood (CreateSpace, www.curetoothdecay.com), explains, “Pastes usually contain abrasive materials to clear hardened plaque and to make teeth appear whiter.”

Keeping your mouth healthy need not involve the use of chemical-filled products—there are a number of natural oral-care alternatives on the market. One of the most popular natural toothpaste ingredients is tea tree oil. An aromatic plant native to Australia, tea tree is renowned for its potent cleansing abilities and has been shown to fight various strains of oral bacteria, including those responsible for bad breath (Archives of Oral Biology 1/13). Another herbal toothpaste ingredient is neem, long used in Ayurveda, India’s system of traditional medicine, for its antiseptic qualities. Other essential oils, such as peppermint, provide a pleasant flavor, as does the natural sweetener xylitol. The mineral silica and papain, a papaya extract, are natural whiteners.

Tea tree oil can also be used as a mouthwash. You can add two to five drops to a glass of water or use a premixed product. “Essential oils are very strong, and if someone’s oral health is mediocre, then they can help invigorate the area,” Nagel notes.

Ayurveda employs oils—notably sesame and sunflower—in a technique called oil pulling, in which these oils are swished around the mouth for about 20 minutes immediately after arising. Using sesame oil in this manner has shown benefits (Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine 4-6/11) and Ayurvedic practitioners believe it helps encourage overall well-being.

Proper diet can also promote dental health. Foods and beverages abundant in vitamin D and calcium are essential. Nagel recommends D-rich cod liver oil to help maintain sturdy teeth and bones. Avoid artificial sweeteners and high-fructose corn syrup.

However, this doesn’t exclude anything with slight sweetness—in fact, pears have been noted for helping to reduce dental plaque.

Another fruit that has been extensively studied for its role in oral-health support is cranberry. Studies have found the natural polyphenols in cranberries have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects that promote oral wellness. They provide other health benefits as well, including potent antioxidant activity.

With an array of natural approaches available, you can maintain healthy teeth and gums, and enhance your overall wellness. By looking at oral care and general health as fundamentally interrelated, your whole body can benefit.

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