by Ross Mackay
In dentistry, as in all areas of medicine, complementary and alternative approaches to disease prevention and treatment are becoming routinely accepted and practised by both patient and clinician.
In Natural Dentistry we combine modern dental practice and techniques with Eastern medicine and Western complementary medical understanding. In essence it is the practice of dentistry that recognises that your health can be affected by dental disease and the treatment of that disease. We avoid the use of known toxic elements, such as mercury and nickel, and utlilise natural therapies such as vitamins, herbs and acupuncture to aid in the prevention and treatment of dental disease.
There are many ways that complementary and alternative therapies can be used in the daily practice of dentistry, often offering a less toxic and more holistic approach to treatment. In this article I will outline some of the natural treatments we commonly use in our surgery.
For many years dentistry has recognised the connection between diet and decay. Refined carbohydrate, particularly sugars, are foods well known to be factors in the development of decay. Regular intake of fresh whole foods and reduction of foods containing refined carbohydrates is not only recommended to reduce decay but is good for the ongoing health and well-being of everyone. What is good for your teeth is also good for your health!
Recently a patient attended for her yearly check up. She has been with me for many years and over that time has required very little treatment. Having complained of mild toothache we found that five teeth needing fillings. She admitted that she had started eating sweets to cope with the stress at work. For the last twelve months, as she has progressed in her career, her work had become more demanding. Over time the stimulatory effect of excessive consumption of sweets may lead to burn-out, fatigue and possibly illness. The decay in her teeth was an initial sign of impending breakdown and 'decay' in her health. We recommended a reduction in her sweet intake and a more positive and healthy approach to dealing with her stress. This included active exercise (such as swimming or running) and passive exercise (like yoga and meditation), a healthier approach to her diet and to take supplements which would help her body deal with stress.
The major cause of tooth loss in adults is periodontal disease, sometimes called “gum disease”. Mild infection around the teeth caused by the bacteria in the mouth can bring about destruction of the bone and supporting structures of the teeth, which lead to loosening and finally loss of teeth. Smokers are many times more likely to suffer from gum disease, and there are other factors such as stress and immune suppression which influence it.
Regular daily cleaning with a toothbrush and dental floss to remove the bacterial plaque is essential to prevent gum disease. Thorough scaling and cleaning by your dentist is also necessary to bring periodontal disease under control. This can be supported with supplements and herbs. In the past limes were given to sailors to prevent the effects of scurvy, which is caused by the lack of vitamin C. Some of the symptoms afflicting the sailors were loose teeth and bleeding gums. Recent research has confirmed that taking calcium supplements to strengthen bone and vitamin C for healthy soft tissue will help in the treatment of gum disease. Combine these with an antioxidant complex to help fight the infection and this will be a good basis to stabilise gum disease. Tea tree oil has been shown to be effective against the bacteria in the mouth. Using tea tree oil in toothpaste or as a mouthwash will help reduce the build up of bacterial plaque on the teeth.
If the gum infection is more severe, we recommend taking supplements such as echinacea and garlic to help fight the infection. We also use a herbal mouthwash which has ingredients for infection such as echinacea, golden seal and pasque flower, for inflammation and pain St John’s Wort, liquorice and golden seal and, for tissue repair, Gotu Kola.
If stress or reduced immunity are factors for individual patients, then the vitamins and herbs used here will be useful. As with my patient mentioned above we would recommend active and passive exercise along with a healthy approach to eating and a reduction in stimulants such as sugar, alcohol and caffeine.
There are many types of materials we can use to restore decayed teeth but we are yet to find a filling which is perfectly compatible with the human body. In Natural Dentistry we endeavour to avoid the use of known toxic materials and test to determine which filling will be most suitable for you.
Mercury is the most well known toxic element used in dentistry and, itself, is the most toxic of the heavy metals. Small amounts of mercury are continually released from amalgam fillings and this mercury accumulates in your body. As the amount of mercury increases in your organs and tissues adverse effects on your health can start to show. There are many signs and symptoms of exposure to mercury from fillings and it depends on each individual’s constitution as to where the mercury will cause problems. The most commonly reported effects are fatigue and loss of vitality, psychological and neurological effects like poor memory, poor concentration and decreased immune function which leads to easily getting infections such as colds and flu.
A while ago I met a patient in the street whose amalgam fillings I had replaced about eighteen months before. She was very pleased to tell me that last winter was the first one for many years in which she had not come down with a cold or flu and attributed this to the treatment I had done. I questioned whether she had changed her diet, taken supplements or started other treatments, but the only thing she had done was to have her mercury fillings replaced. Mercury is known to inhibit immune function even in the small quantities equivalent to the amount released from amalgams.
Other effects of mercury from fillings can be in the gastrointestinal tract with bloating, diarrhoea and poor absorption of food. In the mouth we see metallic taste, tingling and numbness of the lips and tongue, and there have even been reports of gum disease improving following the removal of amalgam fillings. Placement of amalgams has been shown to elicit an auto-immune response. In humans an auto-immune disease, Lichen Planus - which shows as eroded and inflamed areas in the mouth - has often been cured by replacement of mercury fillings.
I had one patient who came to me complaining of pain in her mouth, particularly in the gums. On examination I noticed she had Lichen Planus lesions on her cheek, gums and tongue next to the five teeth that had amalgam fillings. Once the fillings were replaced the Lichen Planus healed.
Amalgam can be replaced with more bio-compatible materials such as composite resin, porcelain and gold. Used correctly and appropriately these materials will give strong and long lasting restorations. For small to medium sized fillings composite resin will be satisfactory, but for larger fillings porcelain or gold maybe recommended because these materials are stronger and will last longer.
The good news is that amalgam usage in dentistry has decreased by 50% over the last five years. This has happened, not only because of patient’s concern about the effects of mercury in their teeth, but also because of waste mercury from dental surgeries polluting the environment. There are also the cosmetic advantages of tooth coloured fillings over grey amalgam.
Nickel is a metal that is widely used in dentistry, particularly in crowns and dentures. It is estimated that about 50% of women are sensitive or allergic to nickel. If you wear jewelry that causes irritation or rashes then you are probably sensitive to nickel. Prolonged exposure to nickel in your teeth may cause irritation in your mouth but also could cause effects such as a decreased immune function and an increased sensitivity to foods and environmental pollutants.
In Natural Dentistry we minimise the use of metals in the mouth. At this present stage use of metals is still necessary for some dental treatment. If metals are to be used then, wherever possible, we use gold, titanium and platinum which are more compatible with the human body. Being metal-free removes the toxic and allergic effects of metals and also stops electric currents flowing between the different metals. Electric currents in the mouth will cause mercury to be released from your fillings. The currents may interfere with the flow of energy in the acupuncture channels and the electrical transmissions in your nerves and brain.
Over the years I have noticed that patients who have high electric current flowing between their fillings are more likely to suffer from fatigue. Once the amalgam fillings are removed these patients very quickly feel more vital and their energy levels improve. This appears to be due to a balancing of the energy flow in the acupuncture meridians.
When extracting teeth, or carrying out other surgical procedures in the mouth, the patient’s immune system and healing needs to be supported and enhanced. As with other dental procedures, if our patients are apprehensive then Bach 'Rescue Remedy' is used. Homeopathic arnica is given to assist with bruising and healing. Vitamins A, C and E, zinc and silica are useful to boost the immune system and assist with rapid and uneventful healing.
To reduce the risk of infection following surgery we use one of the following - tea tree oil mouthwash, with a dosage of six drops in 20mls of warm water, or the herbal mouthwash recommended for gum disease. This herbal mixture is used both as a mouthwash and also swallowed to help your body fight infection and aid in healing.
Low level Laser therapy on the wound can assist the healing and reduce infection following dental surgery. This is simply done for a minute at the end of treatment and can be repeated over the few days following the surgery.
'Bruxing' is clenching and grinding of teeth usually done while we are asleep and is caused by the stress we experience in our daily lives. If this bruxing is excessive then the muscles of the head and neck are overworked leading to spasm and pain. This leads to what is called TMJ (temporo-mandibular joint) dysfunction. Symptoms of TMJ dysfunction are headache, jaw and facial pain, clicking joints, sensitive and fractured teeth and neck pain. The stress in our lives builds up energy in the body, which needs to be released and often we release this by bruxing. The analogy I use is that, in ancient times, if we were threatened then we either fought the threat or ran away. In modern times our threats are more subtle so we usually think about them rather than physically react, hence the energy preparing our bodies to react is not used up as it should be. Hence, we grind our teeth.
I advise patients with TMJ dysfunction symptoms to exercise in an activity they enjoy but one which will not overly stress them and create muscle pain. Meditation and yoga can also be very helpful to deal with the stress by focusing our minds and relaxing our bodies. Magnesium supplements are good to assist with muscle strain and fatigue, antioxidants and B group vitamins will help deal with stress. I will often refer the patient to a 'hands-on' practitioner for massage, osteopathy or chiropractic as these modalities are able to assist in TMJ dysfunction pain.
Before any dental treatment there is some simple advice which can help. As most bruxing is done at night, how the patient lies in bed is important. For most patients their pain is on the same side of the face as their preferred sleeping side. So we advise people to sleep on their backs because, in this position, they are not putting pressure on their jaws. Lying on your stomach is the worst position. If you cannot lie on your back, then keep the pillow so the weight of your head is supported on the temple region, not on the jaws.
A patient once came to me with pain on the left side of her face, complained of regular headaches and would wake in the morning with tight and tired jaws. Just changing her sleeping position from habitually lying on her left side to back-sleeping stopped her pain and substantially reduced her headaches. She required no more treatment.
If the TMJ pain and bruxing is more severe, then an occlusal splint or mouth guard can be made for the patient to wear at night. The splint reduces pain by holding the teeth apart which stops the bruxing and relaxes the spasmed muscles.
Acupuncture can be used to treat many of the common problems we encounter in dentistry. Scientific research has recently shown that acupuncture is helpful in reducing dental pain. As an alternative to local anesthetic injections it can be useful for some patients when having dental treatment. It can be used to relieve pain following treatment and also to stimulate the immune system to aid in healing. Effective sedation for the anxious patient can be achieved using either traditional needles or laser acupuncture.
Acupunture in dentistry is not for everyone, but I do have one patient in particular who has only acupuncture for sedation and pain control during her treatment. Once the needles are placed in sedation points her whole body relaxes, her eyes half-close and she drifts off into a peaceful state. Needles are then placed for pain control and stimulated with a small electric current to increase their effectiveness. Following a comfortable and pain-free procedure she leaves the surgery without a numb face from local anesthetic injections.
Commonly Asked Questions
Does a natural or holistic dentist use anaesthetic injections for treatment?
Of course they are available for all patients who like their treatment done with anaesthetic. Our aim is too have comfortable, pain-free dentistry for each individual patient. We also have Nitrous Oxide, or 'laughing gas', available for anxious patients.
Isn’t it more dangerous to have your mercury fillings removed?
This is not true. When removing amalgam fillings there will be an increase in the amount of mercury released just for the time of that treatment. With adequate protection - in the form of a rubber dam, nose and eye covers to protect against mercury exposure and supplements to help remove mercury from the body - there will be minimal absorption during treatment. If the mercury is left in your mouth then, as it is released from the fillings, there will be an ever increasing amount of mercury building up in your body which may cause problems.
Are the new fillings as strong as amalgam?
There are four materials which can replace amalgam - glass ionomers, composite resins, porcelain and gold, and these materials can sometimes be used in combination. Glass ionomer is too soft and not suitable by itself for most fillings. Gold and porcelain are more expensive to use so it is composite resin that is most often used to replace amalgam. Composite resin in small to medium sized fillings will last well. It takes longer to do a composite filling than an amalgam one and the dentist needs to be skilled in its use. In larger fillings porcelain or gold may be indicated for longevity (this is the same for amalgam). Because composite resin bonds to the tooth we see far fewer fractured teeth with these fillings than with amalgam. My practice has been amalgam-free since 1988 and, over that time, I have found the mercury-free filling materials both to function well and to last.
What is the difference between Natural and other dentists?
All dentists do fillings, repairing teeth and looking after gums. The difference is that Natural Dentists avoid using certain toxic materials and utilise extra complementary treatments relating to dentistry. We avoid the use of materials and treatments that may have deleterious effects on the patient’s health. We use alternative and Eastern medicine to expand and improve the dental treatments that we offer our patients.
What Can You Do?
Remember, what is good for the health of your body will be good for your teeth. Don’t smoke and avoid processed foods such as sugar and refined carbohydrates like white bread. Eat fresh whole foods in a balanced diet and you will reduce the risk of dental problems. Maintain a healthy lifestyle and deal positively with the stress in your life. Daily brushing and flossing is essential for good oral hygiene and, when you require treatment, ask your dentist to use filling materials which will not be harmful to your health.
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