We are always looking for that perfect, pearly white smile, especially after seeing endless billboards and endorsed television adverts pushing the latest toothpaste, promising brighter teeth and everlasting fresh breath.
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As we look right, some schools of thought are looking left, away from the conventional, towards alternative methods of healthcare and beauty.
One such leaning is Ayurveda, a holistic practice that originated in India supposedly over 3,000 years ago. It has survived to date as a core health care system in India and is catching on in Kenya.
Being entirely holistic, it is based on the balance and harmony between the body, mind, and spirit, to prevent and treat illness; through using natural remedies among other practices.
Nairobi-based Ayurveda Specialist, Dr. Rajinder Parshad, has been practising Ayurveda for 27 years and has vast knowledge in Ayurveda, Naturopathy and Yoga.
He attests to effectiveness of Ayurveda, saying his clients have exhibited marvelous results in their overall health.
“We can use Ayurvedic herbs to prevent many diseases daily by adding them in our food and lifestyles, this includes our oral health,” he says.
Chairman of the Kenya Dental Association, Dr. Andrew Wetende, notes that herbal preparations have been used in dentistry.
“Preparations of sage, tea tree oil, eucalyptus, myrrh, clove bud oil, Echinacea and propolis have been used and advocated for reducing gingival inflammation and treating mouth sores and ulcers.”
So, here is how we can maintain our oral health through natural or alternative dental practices.
1. Healthy diet
According to leading nutritionists, the most important action one can take to maintain oral health is through eating a healthy diet. The healthiest diet consists of whole unadulterated foods, 80 percent of which are raw, organic vegetables and fruit.
“As much as possible people should avoid artificial additives – like flavors, colors and preservatives – pasteurized dairy products, refined sugars and animal proteins.”
A healthy diet is the first step towards maintaining oral hygiene.
2. Oil Pulling
Oil pulling is a practice that involves swishing a tablespoon of oil in the mouth, on an empty stomach, for oral and overall health benefits.
Dr. Parshad says oil pulling has been used for millenniums as an Indian folk remedy to reduce cavity, bleeding gums, bad breath, dryness of throat, cracked lips; also for whitening and strengthening teeth, gums and the jaw.
“Sunflower, sesame seed and coconut oils are very popular however sesame seed oil is the best for oral health.”
The most obvious result of oil pulling is improved dental health. That alone makes it worthwhile. What is really remarkable is that the health benefits don’t stop there.
“Many health problems, including those which medical science has yet to find cures for, are also improved or completely cured. Oil pulling has the potential to help with just about any illness or chronic condition,” says Parshad, adding that the practice helps to remove toxins from the body.
He adds that he and his wife, Dr. Seema Sharma, practise oil pulling at least three times a week.
3. Natural toothbrush
To most of us, the thought of not brushing our teeth every day is unnerving. However, tooth brushing as we know it is relatively new, since nylon bristle toothbrushes were introduced to the West in the late 1930s.
We should take a leaf from our ancestors, who would pinch a stick off a tree and chew on it, as a toothbrush. Yet they didn’t need as many dental visits and fillings as the generations that followed.
You can fashion your own herbal stick or mswaki from a variety of ‘toothbrush’ trees such as the local Neem, acacia and lemon trees among others.
Start by carefully breaking off the branch, or cutting it with a knife if necessary. Chew the branch carefully on the end so it turns into a brush.
“Chewing on a fresh stem from the Neem tree is the most popular way to combat tooth decay and keep your oral health intact. The stems should be small, soft and without the leaves,” says Parshad.
The effectiveness of the mswaki is based on the chemical effect of the plant ingredients.
“The use of mswaki has been shown to be effective in tooth brushing with some of the plant extracts contributing to plaque control in addition to the mechanical action of brushing,” Wetende says.
While the mode of action of these herbal extracts are not clearly understood, most have pharmacological effects especially when ingested, he adds.
Not to mention, chewing on the wood strengthens the teeth and gums.
It is advised to keep the chewing stick in your mouth for a while to stimulate saliva and increase the efficiency of brushing, which should typically take five to ten minutes. The same chewing stick can be used 15 times or more.
Studies have shown the mswaki is just as effective as the conventional toothbrush in removing plaque and disinfecting the oral cavity.
Parshad advises that if you are still not comfortable using herbal stick then you should use a toothbrush that has a gentle bristle.
4. Natural toothpaste
Our ancestors did not brush their teeth with toothpaste for thousands of years. In fact, Dr Parshad says ditching the commercial toothpaste would be a wise choice to make, because of the harsh chemicals in manufactured oral products.
According to him, it is easy to do and there are many recipes for making our own home made toothpaste or tooth powders. It is just as effective as industrial toothpaste in cleaning the teeth and keeping fresh breath.
“I love my tooth powder made from Neem powder and salt. Many holistic tooth paste companies make toothpastes from Neem extracts.”
Other possible combinations are baking soda, sea salt, dry aromatic leaves and spices, dry citrus peels, activated charcoal and essential oils, to mention a few.
To turn your tooth powder into a homemade tooth paste, just add coconut oil and mix until you get the desired consistency and texture, and use.
5. Pain management
Many can attest to the ability of a relentless tooth ache to ruin a day. Immediately we rush to the chemist or dentist for a quick pain remedy.
With these topical natural remedies, you may not need to go further than your pantry to relieve tooth pain!
Clove Bud Oil: We all know the clove as an aromatic spice that is commonly used in Swahili, Indian and Chinese cuisine. But did you know it has been approved as a dental anesthetic? – it can help relieve toothaches!
In addition, the essential oil is used as a mouthwash and gargle, to combat bad breath and infections of the mouth and throat.
“Clove is one of the most important ingredients to in treating dental or oral conditions. It is used in many toothpastes, mouthwashes, and oral care medications. Keeping a whole clove under the tongue after eating is also beneficial. Chew lightly on the clove and keep it under the tongue. This is a breath freshener and will keep the teeth and gum strong,” reveals Parshad.
The next time you make pilau, you may want to save some of the cloves and take advantage of their medicinal power.
Cayenne Pepper: It may seem odd to apply chilli on sore gums but evidence suggests that it is a wise thing to do.
“The best known counter-irritant is capsaicin, which is the ingredient that makes the cayenne pepper hot. Over time, desensitization of the nervous tissue occurs, resulting in pain relief,” notes Dr. Phillip Gregory, Research Fellow at the American College of Nutrition.
A Yale University study published in 1998 fed 11 oral mucositis patients candy laced with capsaicin, cayenne’s active ingredient. The candy ensured maximum capsaicin exposure in the mouth. All 11 experienced reduced pain; two of them had their pain completely disappear.
Although there is evidence to support the use of natural approaches to oral care and hygiene, Wetende says that further research is required in this field to address and identify useful herbal extracts, the doses required and for which conditions.
“Also, interactions with conventional medications need to be detailed to help clinicians understand how to merge the current scientifically substantiated information and the use of herbal medicaments for the best patient response.”
The prevalent use of herbal medications makes it essential that dentists be informed. A dental team must be aware of products containing herbal supplements and recognised potentially dangerous combinations.
“To this effect, dentists must encourage patients to always give a complete medical history including any herbal and conventional drugs they are taking,” he concludes.
Although these alternatives to our daily dental routine may be worth exploring, as a rule of thumb, it is always best to consult a specialist before experimenting with some natural remedies.