Need a reason to smile? Keeping our gums healthy can be as easy as eating the right foods and practising good oral hygiene.
Healthy mouths begin with healthy gums. Unfortunately, 70 percent of us will suffer from gum disease if we’re not careful. Good oral hygiene, eating the right foods, and using supplements or supplement-enriched dental products can help keep gums—and us—healthy and happy. Smile.
Gum disease—the basics
According to the Canadian Dental Association, gum disease is one of our most widespread dental problems. Although it’s more common in adults, it can also affect children. Risk factors include
- immune deficiencies
- defective fillings or bridges
- pregnancy and oral contraceptives
- dry mouth
Gum disease proceeds in stages from plaque to gingivitis to periodontitis. Plaque—a clear, sticky biofilm that contains bacteria—forms on teeth and gums daily. If not removed, plaque hardens into tartar (calculus), which can only be removed by a dentist. Gingivitis begins when bacteria feeding on tartar cause infection where our gums attach to our teeth.
If untreated, gingivitis progresses to periodontitis, in which pockets of infection form between gums and teeth. The infection gradually breaks down the tissue and bones holding our teeth in place, making gum disease the main cause of tooth loss. Worse, recent studies suggest possible links between advanced gum disease and medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and stomach cancer.
What to look for
While gum disease often starts painlessly, there are early symptoms that become more apparent as the condition worsens. Check for
- changes in gum appearance—redness, shininess, or puffiness
- frequent gum bleeding while brushing or flossing
- constant bad breath
- a metallic taste in the mouth
- tooth sensitivity or looseness
- painful chewing
- receding gums
Prevention is worth … a set of dentures
While prevalent, gum disease is preventable, treatable, and, in its early stages, reversible. Paying attention to our gums’ health means we can keep our teeth in our mouths rather than in a glass on the bedside table.
The first line of defence is daily dental hygiene. According to Dana Colson, a holistic dentist, “professionals see patients two to four times a year; it’s what happens the other days that’s also important.” For Colson, bringing mindfulness to our dental habits allows us to properly clean our mouths, stimulate our gums, and remove bacteria that accumulate.
Developing healthy dental habits is as simple as forming a regular routine.
- Brush the teeth and tongue twice a day and floss, or use an interdental cleaner, at least once each day.
- Spend a minimum of two minutes to brush thoroughly.
- Develop a routine to cover every surface of each tooth.
- Pay special attention to the gum line where plaque and tartar form.
- Use a soft-bristled brush and non-fraying floss that won’t scratch the surface of the gums, allow bacteria to enter, or cause receding gums.
Note: floss before bedtime, as saliva production is reduced during sleep, making teeth and gums more susceptible to plaque deposits.
Because it’s impossible to remove every speck of plaque, especially below the gum line, twice yearly dental visits provide deep cleaning to remove hardened tartar. More advanced cases of gum disease require more frequent visits or a periodontist, a specialist in treating bone and gum tissue.
This 2,500-year-old Ayurvedic practice is based on the concept that oil nourishes body tissues. Dental claims for this technique include sweeter breath, treatment of gum disease, and prevention of tooth decay.
Preliminary research suggests oil pulling does provide benefits. In a small clinical study in India, oil pulling using sesame oil reduced gingivitis. A subsequent in vitro study indicated that, while sesame oil lacked antibacterial properties, the mechanical process of swishing may have had a soaplike effect, removing micro-organisms, oral debris, and foreign bodies.
Also gaining attention is virgin coconut oil (VCO). In a recent Irish in vitro experiment, enzyme-modified VCO strongly inhibited the growth of Streptococcus mutans, an oral bacterium known to cause tooth decay.
A Canadian study by Leslie Laing at the University of Toronto found VCO may help relieve mouth dryness by stimulating saliva production and significantly reducing microbial counts in some patients. In larger, follow-up studies, Laing will “investigate the oral and antimicrobial effects of VCO and isolate and test the effectiveness of its components.”
Eating for healthy gums
According to Mark Cloth, another holistic dentist, “a healthy, well-balanced diet containing mostly natural, nutrient-rich foods can improve oral health. Many of these are also excellent for overall whole body health.” Research supports Cloth’s advice.
For dental health, include
- foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (such as fatty fish, fish oil, and flaxseed) to reduce inflammatory response
- crunchy vegetables and fruits with the skin intact to scrub off plaque
- dairy, meat, and nuts high in calcium and phosphorus to remineralize teeth and bones
Avoid tooth-unfriendly foods high in sugars, simple carbohydrates, or stickiness, such as candy, baked goods, sweetened soft drinks, fruit juices, and dried fruit.
Supplements support gum health
Although there are hundreds of types of oral bacteria, only a small portion cause gum disease. Others are necessary for oral health. While antibiotics used for gum disease kill off good and bad bacteria, the right herbs and supplements provide a gentler yet effective way to keep our mouths happy.
For gum health, Colson says, “antioxidants and minerals.” A recent study agrees. Patients with lower dietary intakes of vitamin C, flavonoids, and beta carotene had higher incidences of periodontal disease.
Other supplements and herbal preparations show promise in promoting gum health, targeting bad bacteria, reducing inflammation, or remineralizing teeth and bone when ingested or applied topically. A natural health care practitioner can help determine which supplements are best for you. Options include
- probiotics (including those found in new probiotic gums)
- a combination of calcium and vitamin D, with or without soy isoflavone
- aloe vera
- lycopene gel
- coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
Cloth recommends using herbal mouth rinses to fight gum disease. Several studies indicate rinses containing essential oils reduce plaque and gingivitis, while research into various Ayurvedic, herbal, and homeopathic agents used in natural mouth rinses has generally been positive, depending on the particular formulation.
Similarly, preliminary studies of toothpastes containing herbal ingredients such as aloe vera and Spilanthes calva indicate their effectiveness in controlling plaque and gingivitis.
More research is needed to confirm all of these results.