When people ask how I became a holistic dentist, I like to tell them that I was born into it. My mother was committed to natural health and holistic living, so that was the environment I grew up in. Eating a nutrient-rich, whole foods diet, getting plenty of physical activity, balancing work and play – these were the norm. It was only natural, then, that holism would inform my work as a dentist.
So I practice what I preach (and what was preached to me), so to speak, and encourage my staff to do the same. After taking a recent nutrition seminar, for instance, all of us in the office adopted the detox diet we’d learned about. No, detox isn’t just for those who show symptoms of illness. After all, we live in a toxic world. Even if you make all the best, most healthful choices, you’re still exposed each day to countless pollutants through each breath you take. We can all benefit from detoxing now and again, coming away, as my staff and I did, with renewed energy and a heightened sense of physical well-being.
Once upon a time, many used to think that nutrition was beyond the scope of dentistry. Only holistic and biological dentists commonly offered nutritional counseling as we helped chronically ill patients heal from the effects of mercury fillings or other toxic dental materials, focal infections or cavitations. But as many conventional dentists are finally starting to see, nutritional counseling and support can and do play a part in general dental health, as well. And it’s not just about avoiding sugar so you don’t get cavities. It’s also about how key nutrients such as minerals, antioxidants and Vitamin D support strong teeth and healthy gums and bone.
What’s more, not only does a good diet help prevent tooth decay. It can even reverse it once it’s begun.
It’s important to remember that your teeth aren’t just solid, static structures in your mouth. They’re living organs – just as your liver, lungs and heart are living organs. Under the hard enamel covering each tooth is the dentin. It consists of miles – yes, miles! – of microscopic tubules containing fluid and cellular structures. Below that is the pulp, which is made up of living connective tissue and odontoblasts – cells that create dentin. Both dentin and pulp are also rich in nerves, which is why your tooth will start to hurt when there’s deep decay or other damage.
Early in the 20th century, the great dental researcher Dr. Weston Price did some impressive research on the effects of diet on dental health. In studying various native populations around the world, he found that shifts from traditional diets to non-traditional Western diets rich in refined flour and sugar commonly led to oral changes such as smaller, narrower arches that led to the crowding of teeth. It also increased cavities. But it also worked the other way around. That is, he found that a diet rich in minerals and fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) and low in phytic acid promoted remineralization of the dentin, thereby reversing the course of tooth decay. (Phytic acid is main storage form of phosphorous. Its found in many plants, but humans can’t absorb it since we lack the enzyme needed to break it down.) As Dr. Price wrote in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration,
The chemical analysis of the saliva revealed a marked improvement which progressively increased. At the beginning of the test the average for the group showed a very low factor of safety, so low that we should expect tooth decay to be active. In six weeks, the average changed to a condition which we should expect would be accompanied by a cessation of tooth decay. The saliva factor of safety continued to improve for five months at which time the program was discontinued for the summer.
Several incidents of special interest occurred. Two different teachers came to me to inquire what had been done to make a particular child change from one of the poorest in the class in capacity to learn to one of the best. Dental caries is only one of the many expressions of our modern deficient nutritions.
Similar findings were published by Drs. Edward and May Mellanby. Stephan Guyenet at Whole Food Source offers a good discussion of their research:
When enamel is poorly formed and the diet isn’t adequate, enamel dissolves and decay sets in. Tooth decay is an opportunistic infection that takes advantage of poorly built or maintained teeth. If the diet remains inadequate, the tooth has to be filled or removed, or the person risks more serious complications.
Fortunately, a decaying or broken tooth has the ability to heal itself. Pulp contains cells called odontoblasts, which form new dentin if the diet is good. Here’s what Dr. Edward Mellanby had to say about his wife’s research on the subject. This is taken from Nutrition and Disease:
Since the days of John Hunter it has been known that when the enamel and dentine are injured by attrition or caries, teeth do not remain passive but respond to the injury by producing a reaction of the odontoblasts in the dental pulp in an area generally corresponding to the damaged tissue and resulting in a laying down of what is known as secondary dentine. In 1922 M. Mellanby proceeded to investigate this phenomenon under varying nutritional conditions and found that she could control the secondary dentine laid down in the teeth of animals as a reaction to attrition both in quality and quantity, independently of the original structure of the tooth. Thus, when a diet of high calcifying qualities, ie., one rich in vitamin D, calcium and phosphorus was given to the dogs during the period of attrition, the new secondary dentine laid down was abundant and well formed whether the original structure of the teeth was good or bad. On the other hand, a diet rich in cereals and poor in vitamin D resulted in the production of secondary dentine either small in amount or poorly calcified, and this happened even if the primary dentine was well formed.
Thus, in dogs, the factors that affect tooth healing are the same factors that affect tooth development:
- The mineral content of the diet, particularly calcium and phosphorus
- The fat-soluble vitamin content of the diet, chiefly vitamin D
- The availability of minerals for absorption, determined largely by the diet’s phytic acid content (prevents mineral absorption)
They later replicated these findings in human subjects. As they wrote in their 1932 British Medical Journal study, also cited by Dr. Guyenet,
The hardening of carious areas that takes place in the teeth of children fed on diets of high calcifying value indicates the arrest of the active process and may result in “healing” of the infected area. As might be surmised, this phenomenon is accompanied by a laying down of a thick barrier of well-formed secondary denture… Summing up these results it will be clear that the clinical deductions made on the basis of the animal experiments have been justified, and that it is now known how to diminish the spread of caries and even to stop the active carious process in many affected teeth.
To learn more about the role of nutrition in dental health, see my previous article “Eating Well for Good Oral Health” and video “Feeding Your Teeth.”
Tooth diagram by Ruth Lawson, Otago Polytechnic