By Dr. Mercola
Your dental health is an important component of your physical health. It’s a frequently underappreciated aspect that can have a profound systemic influence. In fact, thousands of studies have linked oral disease to systemic disease.
Your mouth is like a window to your health; the soft tissues and your teeth reflect what’s going on in the rest of your body. Inflammation is well-known as a “ravaging” and disease-causing force, and gum disease and other oral diseases produce chronic low-grade inflammation.
When the bacteria that cause tooth decay and gum disease enter into your circulatory system, it causes your liver to release C-reactive proteins, which have inflammatory effects on your entire circulatory system.
Health Risks Associated With Poor Oral Health
People who fail to brush their teeth twice a day may be putting themselves at risk of heart disease,1,2 and advanced gum disease can raise your risk of a fatal heart attack up to 10 times.
There’s also a 700 percent higher incidence of type 2 diabetes among those with gum disease, courtesy of the inflammatory effects of unbalanced microflora in your mouth. Other health effects associated with poor oral health include an increased risk of:3
- Bad breath (halitosis)
- Dementia: failing to brush twice a day increases your risk of dementia by as much as 65 percent, compared to brushing three times a day
- Pneumonia: good oral hygiene has been shown to lower your risk of pneumonia by about 40 percent. Other research has shown that people with periodontitis have a 300 percent greater chance of contracting pneumonia
- Erectile dysfunction (ED): ED is more than twice as common among those with periodontitis than those without ED
- Kidney disease and more
Overall, your diet is the most significant determinant of your oral and dental health, but how you clean your teeth can also make a big difference. Flossing, for example, is an important strategy, yet one-third of American adults never floss. If you’re one of them, I’d encourage you to reconsider.
The Importance of Flossing
Flossing is perhaps even more important than brushing because it removes bacteria that are the precursors of plaque, which if left to fester will turn into tartar that cannot be removed by regular brushing or flossing.
Tartar is what eventually causes the damage that leads to decay and tooth loss. Most people are aware that flossing is a recommended practice for optimal oral health, yet nearly one-third of Americans never floss.
Remarkably, 1 in 5 Americans also does not brush their teeth twice a day.4 According to a recent investigation:5
- 32.4 percent of U.S. adults over the age of 30 never floss
- 37.3 percent floss, but not daily
- 30.3 percent floss on a daily basis
- More women than men never floss
- Low-income participants are less likely to floss than those in higher income brackets
Use a piece of floss that is about 15 to 18 inches long, wrapping each end around your index fingers. Slide the floss between your teeth and wrap it around the side of the tooth in the shape of a “C.”
Scrub the area by moving the floss up and down, and back and forth. Make sure you scrub both sides of the adjacent teeth before moving on to the next set.
If you have wider spaces between your teeth, use Super Floss, which is thicker.6 If dexterity is an issue, use soft plaque removers. Similar to toothpicks, they allow you to clean between your teeth with one hand. A double-pronged floss holder is another option.
While flossing, you can get telltale signs of potential health problems. For example, bleeding gums is a warning sign that you have bacteria in your mouth causing damage, which can easily spread through your blood stream and cause chronic inflammation elsewhere in your body.
The answer is to gently floss and brush more often, until your gums no longer bleed from brushing or flossing. If bleeding persists longer than a week, see a dentist.
Keep in mind that a Waterpik cannot replace flossing. These types of irrigation tools can also be hard on your gums. The truth is, if you brush and floss, you have no need for a Waterpik. That said, it can be beneficial if you have braces.
Tooth Brushing Guidelines
Research suggests the ideal brushing time is two minutes, and the ideal pressure is 150 grams (gm), which is about the weight of an orange.7 Brushing your teeth too hard and longer than necessary can cause more harm than good.
Researchers found that brushing longer than two minutes, and/or using pressure greater than 150 gm does not remove any additional plaque, so there's a “Goldilocks’ zone” when brushing, and there’s no reason to keep going past that point.
When it comes to toothpaste, I recommend using non-fluoridated versions. There are a growing number of such toothpastes on the market these days, as more people are becoming aware of fluoride’s downsides and dangers.
Other toxic toothpaste ingredients to avoid include triclosan, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), propylene glycol and diethanolamine (DEA).
Alternatively, you could make your own toothpaste8 using ingredients such as coconut oil, baking soda (which acts as an abrasive and helps with whitening), and a pinch of Himalayan salt. High-quality peppermint essential oil can be added for flavor and cavity prevention.
The Case for Oil Pulling
Oil pulling is an ancient Ayurvedic practice. When combined with the antimicrobial power of coconut oil, I believe it can be a powerful tool to improve your oral health. The high lauric content of coconut oil makes it a strong inhibitor of a wide range of pathogenic organisms, from viruses to bacteria to protozoa.
However, it also helps promote oral microbiome homeostasis, which is really important, as you don’t want to kill all microbes.
Oil pulling is thought to improve oral and physical health by reducing your toxic load. By swishing and “pulling” the oil between your teeth, it helps draw out pathogens that might otherwise migrate into other areas of your body. When done correctly, oil pulling has a significant cleansing, detoxifying and healing effect.
Naturopathic physician and coconut oil expert Dr. Bruce Fife has compared the benefits of oil pulling to changing the oil in your car:9
"It acts much like the oil you put in your car engine. The oil picks up dirt and grime. When you drain the oil, it pulls out the dirt and grime with it, leaving the engine relatively clean.
Consequently, the engine runs smoother and lasts longer. Likewise, when we expel harmful substances from our bodies our health is improved and we run smoother and last longer."
Sesame oil is traditionally recommended, but it has a relatively high concentration of omega-6 oils and the large amounts of unsaturated fats make it particularly sensitive to oxidation and going rancid.
I strongly believe coconut oil is a far superior option. I also think it tastes better. Coconut oil has a lipophilic effect, helping to eliminate unhealthy biofilm from your teeth. As noted by Authority Nutrition,10 it’s particularly effective at killing Streptococcus mutans, an oral bacterium responsible for a majority of tooth decay.
Coconut oil also contains a number of valuable nutrients that help promote oral health. That said, from a mechanical and biophysical perspective, either oil is likely to work.
So how do you do it? It’s quite simple, actually. You simply rinse your mouth with 1 tablespoon of coconut oil, much like you would using a mouthwash. Work the oil around your mouth by pushing, pulling, and drawing it through your teeth for about 15 minutes. This process allows the oil to dislodge and neutralize pathogens and other debris.
When done, spit out the oil (do NOT swallow it) and rinse your mouth with water. I typically spit mine out on the soil outside of my house, being careful to avoid any plants. If you want, you could dissolve a pinch of Himalayan salt in the water and rinse with that. Himalayan salt contains more than 85 different microminerals, so this is another all-natural strategy that can help promote strong, healthy teeth and gums.
Poor Oral Health Is a Risk Factor for Oropharyngeal Cancers
Poor oral hygiene has also been linked to an increased risk for head and neck cancers. As noted in a recent analysis of 13 studies that were part of the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology (INHANCE) Consortium, lack of tooth brushing and low frequency of dental visits consistently raised the risk of head and neck cancers.11,12
Poor oral health is also an independent risk factor for oral human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, which could contribute to oral cancers such as cancers of the throat, tonsils, and base of tongue, if left untreated for long periods of time.
In one 2013 study,13,14 participants with poor oral health had a 56 percent higher rate of HPV infection than those with healthy mouths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates about 60 percent of oropharyngeal cancers are related to HPV,15 but according to this study it could be as high as 80 percent.
The researchers speculate that good oral hygiene could help prevent HPV infection, thereby lowering your risk for oropharyngeal and other cancers associated with untreated HPV infection.
The Importance of Nourishing Your Oral Microbiome
Part of oral health is attending to your oral microbiome — the colonies of beneficial microbes residing in your mouth. Achieving oral health is really about promoting balance among the beneficial and pathogenic bacteria in your mouth.
And contrary to popular belief, antimicrobial agents and alcohol mouthwashes designed to “kill bad bacteria” actually do far more harm than good in this regard, as they can be indiscriminate killers. The key is to nourish the beneficial bacteria, so they can naturally keep the potentially harmful ones in check.
Your oral microbiome, while connected to your gut microbiome, is quite unique. By promoting oral microbiome homeostasis, you can improve your digestion and salivary immune system, the latter of which helps protect you against disease, such as the common cold and flu. Your oral microbiome even plays a role in making vitamins.
Interestingly, probiotics do not work in the mouth, so it’s not as simple as adding more beneficial microbes into your oral cavity. Instead, as an initial step, you need to cease killing too many microbes in your mouth. Scientists are now starting to recognize that many of the same bacteria that perform beneficial functions can have pathogenic expression when disturbed. So avoiding disrupting the microflora in your mouth is typically more helpful than trying to kill everything off.
Even natural antimicrobial herbs can disrupt your oral microbiome. This includes tea tree oil, tulsi oil and oregano oil. The problem stems from the fact that beneficial bacteria end up having less of a chance of developing a healthy and balanced microbiome when you disturb them too much.
Promoting Oral Health Through Nutrition and Homeopathy
So what are your alternatives? While probiotics do not have a direct effect on your oral microbiome, addressing your gut flora can make a big difference. Fermented vegetables and other traditionally fermented foods are an ideal source, but if you don’t eat fermented foods, then a high-quality probiotic is certainly recommended.
I used to be severely challenged with plaque, but once I started eating fermented vegetables on a daily basis, and doing oil pulling with coconut oil, the plaque buildup was dramatically reduced. Your diet can also make or break your teeth, as it were, by influencing inflammation. Avoiding the following dietary culprits can go a long way toward reducing or preventing inflammation in your mouth and body:
- Refined sugar/processed fructose and processed grains
- Oxidized cholesterol (cholesterol that has gone rancid, such as that from overcooked, scrambled eggs)
- Foods cooked at high temperatures
- Trans fats
- Damaged omega-6 fats found in processed vegetable oils
Certain nutrients are very important for optimal gum health. Vitamin C is one. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is another. CoQ10 is a critical cofactor in the Krebs cycle, which is how energy is created in your cells. Bleeding gums, for example, can be a sign of CoQ10 deficiency. There are also a number of homeopathic tissue salts that can be beneficial for oral health, including:
- Calcarea fluorica (calc. fluor.) or calcium fluoride
- Calcium phosphate
- Calcium carbonate
4 Strategies That Can Improve Your Oral Health
Research revealing the connection between the microorganisms in your mouth and cancer (as well as many other health problems) makes it clear that oral hygiene is a necessary prerequisite if you want to be healthy. Major problems can result from the overgrowth of opportunistic oral pathogens, including oropharyngeal cancers. In addition to avoiding fluoride and mercury fillings, my top four recommendations for optimizing your oral health are as follows:
- Eat a wholesome diet of real food: fresh fruits and vegetables, grass-pastured meats, poultry, eggs and dairy; nuts and seeds. Minimize consumption of sugar and processed food
- Add in some naturally fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, pickles, kimchee or kefir
- Brush your teeth twice daily, and floss every day
- Oil pulling
When it comes to oral hygiene and preventing cavities, please remember, drinking fluoridated water and brushing your teeth with fluoridated toothpaste is not the answer because fluoride is more toxic than lead. Rather it's about your diet, and about proper dental care: brushing and flossing.
By avoiding sugars and processed foods, you prevent the proliferation of the bacteria that cause decay in the first place. Following up with proper brushing and flossing, and getting regular cleanings will ensure that your teeth and gums stay healthy naturally.