As a schoolchild one of the most dreaded things that could happen was a knock on the classroom door to be summonsed to dental clinic aka “the murder house”. As much as I detested it at the time, I’m grateful now for the free dental care the New Zealand government provided.
Having strong and healthy teeth in both childhood and throughout life is a reliable indicator of good health. A regular check up with the dentist is an important part of any comprehensive complementary health plan.
But despite advances in health, dental care and fluoridated water, for the last 14 years tooth decay in children has been on the rise in Australia. Why is this so?
Sugars encourage the growth of bacteria, which in turn cause plaque that leads to tooth decay.
While the connection between sugar and dental cavities is old news, it’s easy to forget about sneaky and sticky forms of sugar that creep into the diet. Babies sucking on bottles of fruit juice or even milk, handy packs of child-size fruit drinks and even supposedly healthy muesli bars are equally as culpable as lollies.
Dried fruit, including those found in muesli bars, tends to stick to the teeth. This coats the teethc for longer with a natural mixture of sugars and acid, making them a perfect combination for tooth decay.
The pH of our food and beverages also plays a role in eroding our teeth. Popular brands of cola are very acidic (coke pH 2.53 and pepsi pH 2.45). Even without the 10 teaspoons of sugar in a 375ml can; the sugar-free versions really do rot your teeth.
Chewy lollies, like jellies and other fruit flavoured sweets, also tend to be very acidic and often stick to your teeth. But vinegar-flavoured chips are also highly acidic, along with “healthy” options like the aforementioned muesli bars and fruit juices. The Choice list of high acid foods offers an eye opening array of popular snacks that can inadvertently damage your teeth.
In addition to sugar, simple carbohydrates such as starches also provide enough acid and natural sugars to increase the rate of tooth decay. Often referred to as “fermentable carbohydrates”, the group includes sugar, crackers, bread, pasta, chips and food made with flour. But the list also includes naturally occurring sugars found in vegetable, fruit and even milk.
The key to good dental health is to eat your food as unprocessed as possible and once again in a form that is less likely to stick to your teeth. For example a cracker made from rice flour is likely to coat your teeth more than steamed brown rice.
The good news is healthy saliva neutralises acid and delays the decay process. Unfortunately smoking (both legal and illegal substances) changes saliva and reduces these properties. Other than directly impacting on the gums, smoking through its negative effect on the make up of the saliva plays a strong role in tooth decay.
The majority of commonly prescribed medications can dry up saliva and impact on your teeth. This is all the more reason for having regular dental check ups if you are on any pharmaceutical drugs long term.
Bitter foods and herbs encourage the production of saliva. Finishing a meal or a snack with some bitter leafy greens such as rocket, endive, kale or radicchio would be better for your teeth than fruit or a sugary dessert. Common bitter herbs like gentian are powerful at even a small dose such as 3 drops in a small glass of water.
Dentists recommend chewing sugar-free gum as a way of increasing saliva. From a naturopathic point of view this is not recommended. Besides qualms about possible negative affects of the chemicals used as sugar substitutes, chewing gum on an empty stomach causes an increase of gastric secretions without being buffered by food.
Flossing and brushing
As well as saving you from expensive dental bills for painful remedial work, brushing your teeth twice a day and flossing at least once daily (preferably after each meal) is a proven way to decrease the occurrence of dental caries.
New evidence suggests that you should wait for half an hour before brushing when you’ve had acidic foods and beverages.
Controversy corner – what about fluoride?
There is convincing evidence that fluoride hardens your teeth to encourage them to be more resilient against decay. However this is only one of the factors, as the rise in tooth decay in Australia since 1996 is also occurring in places with fluoridated water and access to fluoride toothpaste.
The two sides to the debate appear to be that on the one hand fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral that strengthens teeth and bones but on the other, it is also a toxin. The potential negative effects of fluoride are largely concerned with dosage (never put more than a pea-sized squirt of toothpaste of your child’s brush in case they swallow it) and what form the fluoride is in.
Melbourne Water makes vague references to fluoride occurring naturally in some ground and bore water. However it doesn’t clearly state what type of fluoride is added to our drinking water, other than it being a “fluoride solution” You’d assume it is natural wouldn’t you? Yet most water that is treated in Australia uses an industrial by-product rather than a pharmaceutical form of fluoride. For example, one of the three common sources is sodium silicofluoride, which is sometimes scraped from the chimneys of fertilizer plants and sold on to be used as fluoride for water treatment. These forms run the risk of being tainted with other poisons and we do not have adequate safety data for humans, other than them being more toxic than most natural sources.
The issues around fluoride safety and health are complex. Like the vaccination debate it is a polarising subject, with emotive arguments from both sides. I’m gathering evidence for and against fluoride fortification and will present the evidence as it arises. In the meantime I have written to Melbourne Water to find out more about the form of fluoride used and will get back to you with their response.
Melbourne Water’s reply:
Melbourne Water currently uses 2 different products for the addition of fluoride to the water supply, under the direction of the Victorian Department of Health.
Sodium Silico Fluoride Slurry obtained from Consolidated Chemicals. Can be called Sodium fluorosilicate.
Hydrofluorosilicic Acid obtained from Incitec Pivot.
Want to know more? Google the types of fluoride we drink every day and you’ll soon learn that this is not the same as “naturally occurring” fluoride in natural water sources.