Beyond a White Smile
A whole-body approach to dental care benefits your health and the environment.
by Jodi Helmer
Cathy Zaden Lea believes in taking an integrative approach to her health. In addition to seeing an acupuncturist, massage therapist, chiropractor, homeopathic consultant and an MD to manage illnesses and enhance her well-being, Lea, an artist in Greenville, South Carolina, started going to a holistic dentist.
“Holistic dentistry enabled me to take a whole-body approach to dentistry, which is how I approach healthcare in general,” explains Lea, 52. “It’s a more individual approach to what works for me instead of a one-size-fits-all plan.”
Holistic dentists, also known as bio-compatible or environmental dentists, take acomprehensive approach to oral health, performing conventional dental services such as routine cleanings and fillings along with treatments like homeopathy, cranial sacral therapy and nutritional counseling.
In his Front Royal, Virginia, practice, Craig Zunka, DDS, tests for vitamin D deficiencies and other possible causes of periodontal disease, offers homeopathic remedies to treat pain and massages jaws to alleviate discomfort after procedures. He also prescribes antibiotics and pain medications to his patients when needed.
“More patients want less invasive, more holistic options for their dental care,” Zunkaexplains. “A lot of the modalities we use help make treatments easier. It’s part of a comprehensive approach to dental care.”
One of the cornerstones of holistic dentistry is the use of nontoxic materials. Most holistic dentists have mercury-free practices and opt for composite fillings over amalgam. The reason: Mercury makes up as much as half the content of silver fillings by weight and can release toxic vapors, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
There are environmental concerns associated with mercury, too. The NRDC reports that dental offices are a major source of mercury pollution in water, which harms wildlife and infiltrates our food supply.
“Mercury poses significant health and environmental risks and there is no need for dentists to use mercury in fillings when there are safe, effective and affordable alternatives available,” says Charlie Brown, executive director for Consumers for Dental Choice (toxicteeth.org), an organization advocating mercury-free dentistry.
At Natural Dental Health Associates in Issaquah, Washington, Jessica Saepoff, DDS, does not use mercury, nickel, fluoride, latex or fragrances in her practice. She also does biocompatibility testing to determine whether her patients will have a reaction to dental materials, including fillings and crowns.“The materials that we use in the office and in your mouth can have an impact on your entire body,” Saepoff says.
The focus on total well-being is one of the factors that sets holistic dentists apart from conventional dentists.
“All dentists have the same tools and materials to choose from,” says Roberta Glasser, executive director of the Holistic Dental Association (holisticdental.org). “Holistic dentists might choose different tools and materials than conventional dentists to do the same work.”
There are no statistics on the number of holistic dentists. But the HDA has 900 members and Glasser believes there is a “strong demand” for a broader approach to oral health.
The small-but-growing number of holistic dentists can make it difficult for patients to connect with a provider. For example, the HDA website has no listings for practitioners in North Dakota, Arkansas and Wyoming.
Lea, who lives in South Carolina, travels to Connecticut to see her holistic dentist and believes the extra effort is worthwhile.
Seeing “a holistic dentist is part of my holistic and whole-body approach to healthcare and life,” she says.
Although holistic dentistry has become more popular, there are skeptics. “A lot of holistic dentists don’t advertise their [alternative] services because they don’t want to be called quacks,” says Glasser.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that holistic dentists lack training and education. In fact, holistic dentists often have more training than conventional dentists. In addition to earning a DDS or DMD degree from an accredited dental school, holistic dentists seek out continuing education in a range of complementary therapies and offer additional services to their patients.
“It’s not an either/or choice,” Glasser explains. “You’re still seeing a trained and accredited dentist but a holistic dentist thinks outside the conventional dental box and treats patients more holistically.”
As the daughter of a dentist, Lea admits that holistic dentistry is much different than the conventional appointments of her childhood. The exams and treatments are more extensive and require a commitment to whole health, not just dental health. For example, Lea is in the process of having her amalgam fillings removed to reduce her toxic exposure and has adjusted her diet to reduce tooth decay. Other holistic dentistry patients use toothpastes with natural ingredients such as tea tree.
Lea says, “Knowing that my holistic dentist has a completely solid background in traditional dental practices and balances that with knowledge of alternative treatments makes me confident in my choice.”