Keen on Neem

An old Indian remedy gives your teeth a new gleam.

By Lisa James

April 2005


The search for clean teeth, healthy gums and fresh breath is not just a modern obsession, but an age-old fixation. Dental historians believe that ancient cavity rates ranged from 1% among Eskimos, with their highly carnivorous diet, to 80% among members of Egypt's royalty, who feasted on dainties that included many high-carb delights. So it’s no surprise that most ancient cultures had their favorite oral hygiene therapies.

In India, the tooth scrubber of popular choice was twigs taken from the neem tree. Small wonder: This tropical evergreen’s therapeutic versatility sports an impressive 4,000-year-old track record, earning it the nickname of “village pharmacy.” Indians who went abroad carried neem with them, and they put the entire tree—bark, fruit, leaf, root, seed—to health-enhancing use. One famous Indian emigrant, Mahatma Gandhi, was a keen neem enthusiast; after returning to his native land, Gandhi held prayer meetings under a neem tree.

Today, neem’s beautiful branches grace a vast swath of the Southern Hemisphere, including Australia (which may become the biggest neem-producing nation over the coming decades), Fiji, sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America and the Caribbean. This remarkable plant’s Sanskrit name, arista, says it all—“perfect, complete and imperishable.”

Keeping Teeth Intact

Your dentist is actually the second one to drill your pearly whites. The first drillers are the germs that reside in your mouth—or, to be more accurate, the acids these wee beasties produce. Their handiwork: dental caries, or just plain cavities. These bacteria are also responsible for gum disease, which can lead to tooth loss if unchecked. What’s even worse, low-level inflammation caused by disordered gums may create the kind of blood-vessel havoc associated with heart problems.

Neem extracts act against a variety of detrimental microbes, which may explain its time-tested success in helping to keep teeth whole. Scientists at India’s Zydus Research Centre found that individuals who used a neem dental gel twice a day for six weeks enjoyed significant reductions in both plaque—the gummy, bacteria-harboring stuff that accumulates on teeth—and gum disease (International Dental Journal 8/04).

Neem’s fame is spreading among Northern Hemisphere consumers. It is becoming an herbally aware toothpaste ingredient valued for the fresh feeling its cool astringency imparts to the mouth. Neem is also a prized component of other health and beauty products, such as bath powders, lotions, shampoos and soaps.

Ayurvedic Superstar

In India, neem is a vital weapon in the arsenal of Ayurveda, that country’s system of traditional medicine. Practitioners there mash the leaves into a paste to alleviate chickenpox and warts, and brew them into tea to break malaria’s feverish grip. The leaves also make a soothing soak for fungus-infected feet.

Indian scientists are also hard at work studying neem. They’ve distilled the substances that account for neem’s ability to fight bacteria, fungi and parasites (including the pests that infest pets). Researchers have explored neem’s other traditional usages; in one study, a bark extract was able to ease ulcers (Life Sciences 10/29/04). What’s more, neem is esteemed for its contributions to Indian agriculture; the seedcake makes a nutritious feed supplement and bees that feed on neem are free of wax moths.

If you value keeping your teeth in gleaming condition, consider neem.

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