Brushing and flossing are good for your teeth, but traditional wisdom suggests that oral health and whole body health are best nourished from the inside out.
Pioneering dentist Dr. Weston Price (1870-1948) contributed the classic study, "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration." After devoting his career to treating oral disease, Dr. Price spent the 1930s studying oral health. He traveled the world and documented the lives of still-isolated tribes who shared the increasingly rare trait of excellent teeth.
Recording his findings in 18,000 photos, he showed that native populations eating native foods experienced little tooth decay. They had broad, fully developed jaws that easily accommodated a full set of straight, un-crowded, healthy teeth. Further, these populations enjoyed excellent general health, both physical and mental. They didn't suffer the degenerative diseases of their modern counterparts. There was no one diet that produced these results. Some groups ate mostly meat, others an abundance of plants. But there were common threads. All the foods were natural, unprocessed, and as circumstances would have dictated, local and organic. Analyzing the nutritional content of these diets, Price found them especially rich in fats and fat-soluble vitamins.
Price had arrived just in time to witness a vanishing way of life. Civilization was quickly overtaking the primitive world. And so he made another observation. When white flour and sugar arrived, physical degeneration followed in the next generation. The structure of the body actually changed. Jaws narrowed. Teeth came in crowded, crooked and susceptible to decay. Overall health declined.
Since then, modern nutrition and health have taken new turns for the worse. Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, traces today's predominate diet of what he terms "edible food-like substances," to an industrial food system borne out of the end of World War II. Ammonium nitrate supplies were shifted from bombs to fertilizer. Nerve gas research was redirected toward pesticides. The government began to subsidize the mass production of low-cost calories from corn, soybeans, wheat and rice. Policies also began to financially penalize the production of "speciality crops," I.E., fruits and vegetables. Artificially cheap grains led to diets dominated by refined grains, soybean oil and high-fructose corn syrup.
(Chart by Stephan Guyenet and Jeremy Landen, Whole Health Source, used with permission)
On average, American sugar consumption has reached a staggering 130 pounds a year, reports pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig in his 2013 book, "Fat Chance, Beating the Odds Againist Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease." This is about double the consumption that Dr. Price would have encountered when he was practicing dentistry.
As a dentist, I'm all in favor of oral hygiene. It really helps. But it is battling a fundamental weakness. High sugar intake promotes tooth decay from within, Loma Linda University research has documented. Ralph R. Steinman, a dentist and professor of oral medicine at the university, for many years studied the flow of fluids within teeth. He demonstrated that healthy teeth flush themselves clean from within, but high sugar intake interferes hormonally to shut down that mechanism, leading to weakness, inflammation and tooth decay. This occurred when the sugar was introduced through a tube into test animals' bodies, not through their mouths.
Steinman wrote that in repeated animal studies, "the nutritional state and physical well-being of the animals were directly correlated with the incidents of caries. In general, a good nutritional state was associated with a low incidence of caries while nutritional deterioration was accompanied by an increase in (dental) disease."
The mouth mirrors the health of the body. In the early 1900s, Price and his contemporaries observed a striking increase in degenerative diseases. That trend has accelerated, Pollan writes. Chronic, inflammatory diseases relating to nutrition have become a modern plague: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, cancer… And, dental disease.
Although most of my patients are exceptionally health conscious and take excellent care of their teeth, I rarely see anyone with sufficient jaw structure to accommodate a full 32-tooth set of straight, healthy teeth. Teeth need space to exist and to smoothly perform their load-bearing mechanical functions. Because the modern mouth is shrunken and poorly formed, much of dentistry today treats the traumatic effects of a crowded bite. Tooth decay remains among the most common diseases in the world. Even a "small" cavity is a bacterial infection. Treating mouth infection after it destroys tooth and bone structure is always a compromise.
Many health conscious people avoid sugar, but it's hard to find grain products that don't contain white flour, which in the body, also breaks down quickly to sugar. Per capita flour consumption in 2001 was reported at 143 pounds, reports AllBusiness, an online media outlet of Dun & Bradstreet.
As Price reported in the 1930s, white flour took over the market largely because removing nutrients made it possible to ship and store the product with minimal insect contamination. Evidently, insects have the good sense to prefer nutrition with their food. So why don't we?
People often ask what I mean when I talk about a holistic health philosophy. It's a good question, because the answer can vary from person to person. First, I believe that the health of the mouth, the body and the planet are wholly and intricately connected. I believe it is crucial to treat dental disease, because untreated mouth infection is a serious condition that can impose a severe burden on the immune system. Mouth infection often spirals out of control into irreversible, chronic disease, requiring invasive surgeries and leading to progressive breakdown. Science is only beginning to explore exactly what causes what, but a diseased mouth is unquestionably a breeding ground for virulent bacteria and toxic waste products that don't belong in the human body, but which do freely travel through the blood and other anatomical systems.
Prevention is the ideal, to be sure. Nutrition is not a quick fix, not a pill, nor a powder. Nutrition is real food -- fresh, whole, organic, local, natural. And that's why we need our teeth! The mouth is the original food processor, and still the best.