Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa

"We'll have to operate, but we may yet save some of your teeth. It's expensive and painful, but there's no other choice." That was the dentist's final opinion.

Sat Darshan, 53, of Yadkinville, North Carolina, had serious gum disease, brought on, in his words, by a "history of poor oral hygiene, a lifetime of late night sweets, and decades of smoking." His gums were painful and bleeding, and his teeth wiggled in their sockets.

Never one to take a crisis sitting down, Darshan began to explore natural alternatives. His first stop was Bastyr University Naturopathic Clinic in Seattle, Washington. His naturopathic physician recommended daily doses of Coenzyme Q10 to stabilize the gum tissue, and a few basic lifestyle changes. These measures slowed the degeneration, which provided some hope.

Darshan's actual recovery started when he sought out herbal therapy as a last resort. On the advice of a herbalist, Darshan began a regime of nightly gum packs made from herbs rolled in gauze, which he tucked into the corners of his mouth. A combination of turmeric, aloe, willow bark, vitamin E, and powdered alum did the trick. He rapidly noted a "significant turnaround," and by the four- month mark was out of crisis.

Darshan's periodontist concurred. Following therapy, which also included dietary supplements and brushing his teeth with a mixture of powdered alum and salt, the his teeth were more solid in his mouth, and he avoided any extractions. Now, four years later, Darshan still has no significant periodontal disease, just a couple of spots, which is quite normal for a man his age. Even though Darshan's results were dramatic, he emphasizes that it "didn't just happen. It took a tremendous amount of effort and some discomfort" to save his teeth.

Natural Dental Care

Contrary to popular belief, your teeth are designed to last a lifetime. Even so, an increasing percentage of Americans wear dentures. According to the dental profession, between 80 and 90 percent of our population has some observable gum disease. marshmallow

Taken together, tooth cavities (dental caries) and gum (periodontal) disease, create a painful condition that causes tooth loss and is expensive to correct. Americans spend more than $40 billion a year to treat and slow the degeneration of their dental health.

Dental disease has a reciprocal effect with overall body health. If you're over stressed and generally unhealthy, your immune system will be suppressed and dental caries, caused by bacteria, will flourish. If your mouth is unhealthy, especially with gum disease, it overloads your health every moment of the day, lowering your resistance to all disease.

A clean mouth is a healthy mouth. As the saying goes, "clean only the teeth you want to keep." In addition to conventional care, the main way to keep your mouth clean is to eat a sugar-free, natural foods diet. The bacteria that cause dental caries (Streptococcus mutans) thrive on sugar.

Natural Tooth Brushing

Since tooth brushing is the most basic process in oral care, it's a good place to start your natural tooth and gum care program. Traditional peoples the world over use natural tooth brushes made from healing plants. These primitive twig "brushes" actually work quite well, and provide a natural-bristle, disposable brush with healing herbs already incorporated right in the plant. Children find them particularly fun.

Herbalist Lesley Tierra, L.Ac., in her excellent book The Herbs of Life (Crossing Press, 1992), suggests that "the twigs contain volatile oils which stimulate blood circulation, tannins that tighten and cleanse gum tissue and other materials, such as vitamin C, which maintain healthy gums. Bay, eucalyptus, oak, fir, and juniper all work well for this." In Asia, people often use twigs of the neem tree (Azadirachta indica).

In The New Holistic Herbal (Element, 1983), noted British herbalist David Hoffmann suggests using the roots of marshmallow, licorice, alfalfa, or horseradish. (See "Head Popping Horseradish," page 52 for more information.) Of course, most of us will brush with a more modern, nylon-bristle brush.

Herbal medicine abounds with great substitutes for store-bought toothpaste. Most effective natural tooth powders are warming, which promotes circulation in the gums; astringent, which tightens the gums; and detoxifying, which removes debris. Of course any preparation should also remove plaque.

A classic Ayurvedic combination contains two parts powdered potassium alum, an astringent, and one part powdered salt. Prickly ash bark is a classic toothpowder from North America, and myrrh gum is widely used in Middle Eastern herbalism. Tea tree oil (very dilute) stimulates circulation and kills germs, and Leslie Tierra recommends a macrobiotic preparation of the ash of the calyx of the eggplant, which she says will cure "any toothache, pyorrhea, and other mouth and gum disorders."

And while you're concentrating on brushing and flossing, don't overlook the fact that cleaning the tongue is a critical part of maintaining oral health. Ayurveda, in particular, emphasizes this daily practice. Brush your tongue while brushing your teeth, or use a tongue scraper, which you'll find in most health food stores. Tongue cleaning reduces bad breath, and helps prevent plaque.

General Mouth Care

Most herbalists and natural healers recommend using warming, astringent, connective-tissue-healing herbs to enhance and maintain oral health. These herbs can be used as a rinse or applied as packs (a pinch of powder, wetted to a mush with a liquid such as water or vitamin E, and tucked next to the teeth). Rinses are made by preparing a herb as tea in the usual way, or by simply stirring herb powder into water. Hold the rinse in the mouth for a few seconds or up to several minutes, gargle, and spit out. Michael Tierra, O.M.C., L.Ac., in "Planetary Herbology" (Lotus, 1988), suggests that a daily mouth wash made from chaparral will prevent dental caries. Ayurvedic herbalist Melanie Sachs, in "Ayurvedic Beauty Care" (Lotus, 1994), suggests a gum massage with a mixture containing five parts alum powder, two parts rock salt powder, three parts black pepper powder, and one part turmeric root powder. In The "Traditional Healers Handbook" (Healing Arts, 1988), Hakim Chrishti, N.D., suggests a gum pack made from rose petal, oak leaf, and carob powder.

The Ayurvedic herb, amla, is a general rebuilder of oral health. Dr. Vasant Lad, a noted Ayurvedic proponent, suggests this fruit in his Yoga of Herbs (Lotus, 1986). Amla works well as a mouth rinse, or one to two grams per day can be taken orally in capsules for long-term benefit to the teeth and gums.

Herbs such as amla that support the healing and development of connective tissue when taken internally will always benefit the gums. Just remember that since they must saturate the whole body in order to work on the gums, the healing effect of these tonics tends takes longer to become apparent. The results, however, are more lasting.

Bilberry fruit and hawthorn berry stabilize collagen, strengthening the gum tissue. Licorice root is a gem for the mouth: It promotes anti-cavity action, reduces plaque, and has an antibacterial effect.

The tooth sockets are joints, and the teeth are essentially bones. Herbs that treat the skeleton and the joints when taken internally are good bets for long-term tooth health. Standouts include yellow dock root, alfalfa leaf, cinnamon bark, and turmeric root.

Periodontal Disease

Like the case we discussed earlier, Mrs. I, of Boulder, Colorado, knows the misery of gum disease. At age 45, she was making monthly pilgrimages to the periodontist to save her sore, bleeding gums. These sessions were necessary, but quite painful, and she had grown to dread them.

After 15 years of this misery, she committed to trying herbal medicine. Turmeric capsules, goldenseal rinse, and nightly packs of a paste of turmeric powder, licorice root, and vitamin E solved her problem. She began the program only two weeks before one of her regular periodontal appointments, and her dentist said her gums were in the "best condition ever."

Periodontal disease (PD) is a long-term, low-grade bacterial infection of the gums, bone, and ligaments that support the teeth and anchor them in the jaw. The bacteria are normal inhabitants of the mouth, but when allowed to overgrow, they form plaque and tartar, and produce toxins that provoke the body's immune response. When allowed to progress, the disease destroys the supporting structures of the teeth, which eventually leads to tooth loss.

PD occurs at any age. More than half of all people over 18 have some form of the disease. After age 35, over 75 percent of all people are affected. PD is a major, if not leading, cause of bad breath in American adults and is clearly the leading cause of tooth loss. Diabetes in particular drastically increases the risks.

In my experience, whole body healing along with local gum treatment can dramatically reverse PD. Turmeric mouth packs, hawthorne specifically, work outstandingly well.

Holistic dentist Victor Zeines, DDS, has spent 20 years developing a herbal mouthwash for PD. A preliminary study showed that, used twice a day, his herbal rinse reduced plaque by 50 percent and reduced gum pockets by 1 to 2 mm, and decreased bleeding. His formula contains extracts of echinacea, goldenseal, calendula, aloe, bloodroot, and grapefruit seed. Similarly, David Hoffmann likes to use tinctures of echinacea, eucalyptus, and myrrh as washes, or a gum massage with the oil of eucalyptus to treat PD.

Mouth Sores

Commonly called "canker sores," these mouth ulcers can be supremely painful. Jonathan Wright, MD, of Kent, Washington, says that canker sores are virtually always linked to food allergies and nutritional deficiencies, particularly iron, B12, and folic acid. He also suggest using high oral doses of acidophilus and an acidophilus mouth rinse.

Since mouth ulcers stem from a breakdown in tissue structure, the herb gotu kola (Centella asiatica) can be quite effective. Gotu kola is widely known to heal wounds and promote connective tissue growth. The dose is one ounce dry weight of herb per day, brewed as tea.

A recent study showed good results using a chamomile mouthwash in treating mouth ulcers caused by chemotherapy. Other rinses that can help include alum, Milk of Magnesia, and cinchona bark. Dr. Chrishti suggests applying the powder of myrrh gum directly to the ulcer.

Probably the most outstanding herbal remedy for mouth sores is licorice root, a potent anti-inflammatory and tissue healer. Put a pinch of powder on the sore, or suck on a lozenge made from DGL (de-glycyrrhizinated licorice).

Your teeth are a reflection of your whole body. If you are healthy, your mouth will be healthy. Teeth, gums, and bone can heal. Give these techniques a try. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how well they work.

General Oral Conditioners

Gum Disease Linked to Heart Trouble

Reprinted with permission from The Herb Quarterly.
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