I’m a medical doctor, not a dentist...so why am I concerned about my patients’ teeth? Because keeping your mouth in the pink goes a long way toward promoting and supporting optimal health.
Poor dental hygiene and gum disease dramatically increase the risk of serious illness. That’s because infections in the mouth can lead to systemic inflammation, which sets the stage for and exacerbates a host of health problems throughout the body.
Of course brushing is important, but there’s something else you can do to keep your teeth and gums healthy—and I’m not talking about flossing. But first, I want to address a few common dental questions.
Should I Have My Amalgams Removed?
A hot controversy in dentistry is the safety of “silver” amalgam fillings, which are used to fill more than 50 million cavities every year.
Despite their name, silver amalgams consist primarily of mercury, a highly toxic heavy metal with devastating effects on the kidneys, blood vessels, and central nervous system. There’s no question that chewing, drinking hot beverages, and grinding amalgam-filled teeth releases mercury vapor that’s absorbed into the body.
No matter how many dentists tell you amalgams are safe, voluntarily implanting toxic materials in your mouth is a bad idea. If you need to have a tooth filled, ask for a biocompatible alternative to amalgam, such as composite fillings. They’re more expensive, but they affix better to enamel and are more attractive.
As to whether or not you should have your existing amalgam fillings replaced, we usually recommend this to patients with very high levels of mercury and signs of toxicity. However, it’s a pricey procedure that I do not offer as a blanket recommendation for everyone. (Personally, I chose to have mine removed.)
Should you decide to go this course, look for a dentist who is experienced in the safe replacement of amalgams. To locate a holistic dentist in your area, contact the Holistic Dental Association.
Are Root Canals Safe?
Root canals involve removing the soft tissue and nerve inside an infected tooth to relieve pain and sensitivity and prevent infection from spreading. Beats pulling the tooth—or does it?
According to George Meinig, DDS, a founding member of the American Association of Endontists (root canal specialists) who popularized the concept of focal infection, it doesn’t.
Dr. Meinig and his many converts believe that chronic infection in the teeth can cause health problems throughout the body, and that root canals are a prime breeding ground for bacteria. Granted, there are situations, such as extreme pain or abscess, in which a root canal or extraction is required.
If you do get a root canal, it’s imperative that it be done right. Bacteria must be completely eradicated and the tooth properly sealed or contamination can recur, and that’s where the problems begin.
If you’ve already had a root canal, I do not recommend that you rush out and have the tooth pulled. But, as with amalgams, we occasionally advise chronically ill patients to go this route, with sometimes astounding improvements in their health.
If I were facing a root canal, I’d probably have the tooth pulled and get an implant, altogether bypassing the potential for problems down the line.
Is Whitening Worth It?
Whether it’s done in your dentist’s office, via take-home trays, or by using over-the-counter strips, the active agent in teeth whitening or bleaching is hydrogen peroxide. Believe it or not, all of these approaches produce similar results.
The primary difference is that office procedures use stronger solutions, so they get faster results—and they cost more. Some dentists charge hundreds of extra dollars for laser-enhanced whitening, but aside from speeding things up, this high-tech approach adds little value.
As for safety, bleaching agents are caustic, so care must be taken to not get any on your gums. They may also cause transient tooth sensitivity, particularly with in-office whitening where stronger chemicals are used; although home-based products increase sensitivity in some people as well.
Teeth whitening is a cosmetic procedure, so the real question is, what’s a “million-dollar smile” worth to you?
Do I Have to Floss?
The purpose of flossing—and brushing your teeth, for that matter—is to mechanically remove plaque.
Plaque is a biofilm, produced by bacteria called Streptococcus mutans. They feed on sugars in the mouth and excrete acids that decalcify enamel and bore into the inner tooth. This sets the stage for decay and periodontal disease, which can lead to tooth loss and, as I mentioned earlier, more problematic systemic inflammation.
So, yes, you should floss your teeth. It only takes a minute or two a day, and its benefits are profound. Several studies demonstrate that regular flossing lowers levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation associated with serious disease.
If you’re not going to floss, at least brush properly. The average American spends just 46 seconds brushing—not nearly long enough. And use an electric toothbrush. It may not be as good as flossing, but the vibration has been shown to remove plaque below the gum line.
What Else Prevents Gum Disease?
Did you know that a naturally occurring sugar called xylitol can also dramatically improve the health of your teeth and gums? You may be thinking, “Sure, doc, sugar that’s good for your teeth.” But xylitol isn’t just any old sugar. It’s actually a sugar alcohol, a class of carbohydrates that is incompletely absorbed and metabolized.
Xylitol and other sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol and mannitol, are often found in products marketed for people with diabetes or weight problems. But xylitol has a number of medicinal benefits that other sugar alcohols lack—especially in the mouth.
Thanks to its unique five-carbon chemical structure, xylitol is poorly metabolized by S. mutans. When you replace sucrose and other sugars with xylitol, your mouth becomes an inhospitable environment for these bacteria, and over time, they die off and are replaced with benign bacteria.
For optimal protection, expose your mouth to xylitol in the form of gum, hard candies, lozenges, toothpaste, mouthwash, or spray three to five times a day. Another option is to put one quarter teaspoon of xylitol granules in your mouth several times a day. As they dissolve, swish them over your teeth and wait as long as is comfortable before swallowing.
So there you have it. Now, do your entire body a favor and take a proactive role in protecting those pearly whites.