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Nutsedge: This Dirty Little Weed May Have Cleaned Up Ancient Teeth


Story at-a-glance -

  • Ancient populations often munched on purple nutsedge, a grass-like weed that produces antibacterial compounds and might have helped prevent tooth decay
  • Shifts in diet from the hunter-gatherer age to farming led to detrimental shifts in oral bacteria, such that cavity-causing bacteria eventually became dominant
  • Chewing sticks, which come from trees with antimicrobial properties, have been used since ancient times as “natural toothbrushes”
  • Chewing sticks from the neem tree had the most antimicrobial activity, including against cavity-causing Streptococcus mutans, in one study
  • Oil pulling also reduces counts of Streptococcus mutans bacteria – a significant contributor to tooth decay – in plaque and saliva

By Dr. Mercola

Plaque that gets stuck below your gum line can calcify in a matter of weeks, leading to an extremely hard substance that can last for thousands of years, especially among prehistoric people who had no access to a dentist.

Interestingly, plaque isolated from skeletons located at a 2,000- to 9,000-year-old burial site in Central Sudan can actually give clues to what the people ate.

Using various techniques, including chemical analysis, archaeologists with the Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona revealed a glimpse into prehistoric diets and, perhaps, ancient dental habits as well.1

Purple Nutsedge: An Ancient 'Weed' for Dental Health?

The analysis revealed "all sorts of things" in the teeth of 19 ancient skeletons, including sand, dirt, pollen, plant fibers, and carbon (from breathing smoke).2 Seven of the individuals had evidence of cracked starch granules in their teeth, which suggests they were eating roasted purple nutsedge, a grass-like plant with small, potato-like roots.

Once valued by ancient Egyptians to make perfume, and eaten as a staple in certain Aboriginal groups,3 the starches in purple nutsedge probably offered the hunger-gatherers much-needed energy, while modern analysis revealed it also contains lysine, an important amino acid.

Even after farming became widespread thousands of years later, the researchers noted there was still evidence of nutsedge on teeth, and perhaps those who ate it had some intrinsic knowledge of its benefits.

Nutsedge, it turns out, produces antibacterial compounds that might help prevent tooth decay. According to the study, although nutsedge is widely regarded as a pervasive weed, it actually has some serious medicinal value:

"This plant is a good source of carbohydrates and has many useful medicinal and aromatic qualities, though today it is considered to be the world's most costly weed.

Its ability to inhibit Streptococcus mutans may have contributed to the unexpectedly low level of caries found in the agricultural population."4

'Hunter-Gatherers Had Really Good Teeth'

So said Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Center for Ancient DNA.5 His team also looked at calcified plaque on teeth from prehistoric skeletons and revealed that changing diets lead to detrimental shifts in oral bacteria. While hunter-gatherers tended to have really good teeth, that changed among farming populations.

"…as soon as you get to farming populations, you see this massive change. Huge amounts of gum disease. And cavities start cropping up," Cooper said.6

The two greatest culprits as far as dietary shifts and dental health go was the introduction of carbohydrate-rich farming diets in the Neolithic period (about 10,000 years ago) followed by the more recent introduction of industrially processed flour and sugar (around the mid 1800s).

The calcified dental plaque offered researchers a "detailed genetic record" that showed a transition from a hunger-gatherer diet to farming "shifted the oral microbial community to a disease-associated configuration."

Cavity-causing bacteria became dominant, likely during the Industrial Revolution, and the oral microbiotic ecosystems also had "markedly less" diversity, which the researchers said "might be contributing to chronic oral (and other) disease in postindustrial lifestyles."7

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Is Diet Alone Enough to Guarantee Perfect Teeth?

In the 1900s, Dr. Weston A. Price did extensive research on the link between oral health and physical diseases. He discovered that the most successful primitive groups health-wise were those who paid attention to and integrated beneficial ancient knowledge and dietary wisdom into their lives.

The difference, Price reasoned, between primitive cultures who were healthy and those who were diseased came not from solely eating a traditional diet (as they all did), but in the accumulated wisdom enjoyed by certain populations, which allowed them to enjoy optimal health.

Clearly, one of the keys to oral health is eating a traditional diet rich in fresh, unprocessed vegetables, nuts, and grass-fed meats that are in line with your genetic ancestry. Dr. Price, too, found, and documented in his classic book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, that native tribes who were eating their traditional diet had nearly perfect teeth, and were nearly completely free of tooth decay.

But when these tribal populations were introduced to sugar and white flour, you can guess what happened… their health, and their perfect teeth, rapidly deteriorated. However, as beneficial as a traditional diet is to your dental and overall health, it might not be enough to guarantee perfect oral health.

We know, of course, that eating highly processed foods and sugar certainly causes and worsens dental decay in humans, but there must be more to the story. There is evidence of tooth decay in ancient populations, long before there was exposure to refined sugar and white flour, as well as among wild animals today.

Even some dolphins, which generally eat no carbohydrates whatsoever — only fish, squid, and crustaceans — have problems with tooth decay. Clearly, simply following a traditional diet is not enough to explain this phenomenon, or else there would be no dental decay in ancient peoples or wildlife.

Chewing Sticks: An Effective 'Natural Toothbrush'

Ancient populations may not have had toothbrushes, toothpaste, and dental floss, but they did have tools for protecting their oral health. One of the most well-documented is the use of chewing sticks, which has been done since ancient times in India, China, Egypt, and Africa (and many cultures still use them to this day).

As the name implies, chewing sticks are simply twigs from trees with antimicrobial properties. Generally, a frayed end would be used like a toothbrush to brush teeth while a pointed end would act as a toothpick. Many tree species were used for chewing sticks, including tea tree, cinnamon, mango, and dog wood, although neem is probably the most widely known.

One study published in 2012 showed that neem had the most antimicrobial activity, including against cavity-causing Streptococcus mutans, compared to three other commonly used chewing sticks (miswak, mango, and banyan).8

If you are so inclined, chewing sticks are widely available today and their use is even encouraged by the World Health Organization (WHO). Plus, you'll probably enjoy their taste far more than you would chewing on a purple nutsedge (which researchers described as tasting "like dirt").

Researchers writing in the Journal of Periodontal Research referred to chewing sticks as "timeless natural toothbrushes for oral cleansing" due to their active antimicrobial properties, low cost and simplicity:9

"…natural methods of tooth cleaning using chewingsticks selected and prepared from the twigs, stems or roots from a variety of plant species have been practiced for thousands of years in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas.

Selected clinical studies have shown that chewingsticks, when properly used, can be as efficient as toothbrushes in removing dental plaque due to the combined effect of mechanical cleaning and enhanced salivation. It has also been suggested that antimicrobial substances that naturally protect plants against various invading microorganisms or other parasites may leach out into the oral cavity, and that these compounds may benefit the users by protection against cariogenic and periodontopathic bacteria."

Oil Pulling Is Another Time-Tested Natural Trick to Improve Your Dental Health

Oil pulling involves "rinsing" your mouth with the oil, much like you would with a mouthwash (except you shouldn't attempt to gargle with it). The oil is "worked" around your mouth by pushing, pulling, and drawing it through your teeth for a period of about 20 minutes. I recommend coconut oil for oil pulling because it also has antibacterial properties. Candida and Streptococcus are common residents in your mouth, and these microorganisms and their toxic waste products can contribute to plaque accumulation and tooth decay. Oil pulling may help lessen the overall toxic burden on your immune system by preventing the spread of these organisms from your mouth to the rest of your body, by way of your bloodstream.

Many people think oil pulling sounds strange... until they try it. Then many become hooked. It's just one more way that you can use a natural, simple substance to significantly boost your oral health. People have been using this technique, and others like chewing sticks, for centuries because they work. Anecdotally, virtually everyone who tries it notices an improvement in their oral health. Personally, this technique has significantly reduced my plaque buildup, allowing me to go longer between visits to the dental hygienist. As reported by the Indian Journal of Dental Research:10

"Oil pulling has been used extensively as a traditional Indian folk remedy without scientific proof for many years for strengthening teeth, gums and jaws and to prevent decay, oral malodor, bleeding gums and dryness of throat and cracked lips."

If you take a look at the research, it's easy to understand why:

  • Oil pulling reduced counts of Streptococcus mutans bacteria – a significant contributor to tooth decay – in the plaque and saliva of children.11 Researchers concluded, "Oil pulling can be used as an effective preventive adjunct in maintaining and improving oral health."
  • Oil pulling significantly reduced plaque, improved gum health and reduced aerobic microorganisms in plaque among adolescent boys with plaque-induced gingivitis.12
  • Oil pulling is as effective as mouthwash at improving bad breath and reducing the microorganisms that may cause it.13
  • Oil pulling benefits your mouth, in part, via its mechanical cleaning action.14 Researchers noted, "The myth that the effect of oil pulling therapy on oral health was just a placebo effect has been broken and there are clear indications of possible saponification and emulsification process, which enhances its mechanical cleaning action."

Honey, Fermented Vegetables, and Omega-3 Fats: Three More Dental Superstars

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Proper dental hygiene is important for optimal health in your mouth and in the rest of your body, as discussed by Dr. Bill Osmunson in the interview above. The key is your diet and proper dental care: good old brushing and flossing. By avoiding sugars and processed foods, you help prevent the proliferation of the bacteria that cause decay in the first place. Eating fermented vegetables is another simple "trick." Fermented vegetables are loaded with friendly flora that not only improve digestion but alter the flora in your mouth as well. Since the addition of these foods into my diet, my plaque has decreased by 50 percent and is much softer.

Practicing twice daily brushing and flossing, along with regular cleanings by your biological dentist and hygienist, will ensure that your teeth and gums are as healthy as they can be. I believe oil pulling once or twice a day will also enhance your current dental hygiene routine. In addition to consuming foods that are part of the "traditional diet" and avoiding processed foods and refined sugar, make sure you are getting plenty of omega-3 fats. The latest research suggests even moderate amounts of omega-3 fats may help ward off gum disease. My favorite source of high-quality omega-3 fat is krill oil.

A particular type of honey from New Zealand called Manuka honey has also been shown to be effective in reducing plaque. Researchers found Manuka honey worked as well as chemical mouthwash — and better than the cavity-fighting sugar alcohol xylitol — in reducing levels of plaque. This is most likely due to the honey's antibacterial properties. Clinical trials have shown that Manuka honey can effectively eradicate more than 250 clinical strains of bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant varieties. So while your toothbrush and toothpaste are important, don't be misled by thinking they're the only options for sound dental health. Many natural substances also have the power to drastically improve the health of your teeth and gums.