I'll never forget a subway trip I had last summer. It seemed to me that the woman across from me had undertaken the weirdest crocheting project yet. Then I watched her pop the unidentified object into her mouth -- she'd been nonchalantly cleaning her dentures!
If you want to avoid her expensive fate, chances are you'll need to take action now (just in time for National Dental Hygiene Week, October 14 to 20). The main cause of tooth loss after age 35 is periodontal disease (PD), a bacterial infection that gradually destroys the connective tissue, bone and ligaments that anchor the teeth in the jaw.
Half of all people over 18 have PD, and it's present in three-quarters of people older than 35. So when you see your dentist, make sure you get your gums checked out. PD doesn't just wreck your smile; studies suggest that having PD increases the chance of giving birth prematurely, developing heart or lung disease or suffering complications of diabetes.
Smoking, alcohol abuse, bulimia, cancer and HIV infection significantly increase your risk of developing PD, as does an immune-busting diet high in sugar and low in whole grains, fruits and veggies. There's also a poorly understood link between gum health and hormones: women's gums seem to be more vulnerable to infection on the pill and at menarche, during pregnancy and during the premenstrual phase of the menstrual cycle.
Holistic dentists say that not only bacteria can be involved in PD, but also fungi and parasites called amoebas. The latter are particularly scary -- they destroy white and red blood cells.
Your main defence is avoiding exposure and keeping your mouth clean. If your immunity's low, it might be safer to greet friends with a kiss on the cheek. Avoid sharing dishes, cutlery or toothbrushes, and beware of buffet spreads -- they're easily sneezed and drooled on.
Salt water or well-diluted grapefruit seed extract (5 to 10 drops in a cup of water) makes a critter-killing mouthwash. You can also get toothpastes containing grapefruit seed extract or tea tree oil. Nix commercial mouthwash brands containing alcohol. They damage your mouth tissue, leaving it open to infection.
"Flossing and brushing can keep toxins at bay but won't get rid of an underlying infection. If you thoroughly brush and floss your teeth but they feel fuzzy within two to three hours, you probably have amoebas. An uninfected mouth will feel clean for 24 hours. There is also an herbal mouthwash that can prevent infection, only available from dentists. Nutrition and getting enough vitamin C are important. Gum surgery for cleaning the roots no longer has any justification to my mind."
OSKANA SAWIAK, doctor of dental surgery
"People who use co-enzyme Q10 say their teeth are less wobbly. With severe symptoms, you can break open a 60-milligram capsule and rub it on the gums and swallow. Get an oil-based CoQ10 stabilized with vitamin E. For less severe symptoms, I recommend taking 1/8 teaspoon myrrh or licorice root powder and mixing it with a few drops of water until it's a paste, then rub gently on the gums. If bone loss is present, I would also supplement with calcium. And I might use a general antioxidant combination, something that has vitamins C, E, A, selenium and zinc."
JEN GREEN, naturopathic doctor
"There are very few things we can do to alter resistance to bacteria. The most common treatment is scaling and root planing, physically cleaning the sides of the teeth and removing the bacteria and contaminated surface of the tooth a little bit. Sometimes we consider antibiotics. As far as grapefruit seed extract, tea tree oil and the use of nutritional supplements to increase resistance to infection, I'm unaware of any evidence-based literature that would support their use."
ROBERT SUTHERLAND, periodontist