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Happy Shiny Teeth by Katharine A Gilchrist, Vegan Views 78 (Winter 97/98)

Warning: don't take my word for anything in this article. If you have tooth or gum problems, please try to find out as much as you can from your dentist, doctor or other sources. The most you can expect from the following is a guide as to what questions to ask. This article is about dental care and veganism. It was originally to be written by Lesley Dove, but she found it very difficult to find information about dental materials and animal testing, so I have volunteered to write this article based on what we had managed to discover.

AMALGAM

The organisation What Doctors Don't Tell You (WDDTY) has produced a booklet the WDDTY Dental Handbook (The Wallace Press, 1986). This warns of the potential hazards of amalgam fillings, which contain mercury and other metals. It states that "not everyone should" have their amalgam fillings removed. It details the tests involved for checking for sensitivity to mercury and other metals. There is much information about how fillings should be removed and the vitamin supplements needed to remove mercury that may have lodged in other parts of the body. If you think your fillings may be making you ill, buy the book. It lists dentists who don't use mercury. In HOME ECOLOGY (Arlington Books, 1989) Karen Christenson praises composite fillings (the white ones). A dentist told me that she is wrong; white fillings do involve drilling. They do not last as long as amalgam.

The BRITISH DENTAL ASSOCIATION (BDA), which represents dentists, believes, that mercury is safe (Amalgam Fillings: information for patients, dated 6.8.94). Interestingly, the Department of Health (letter dated 13.5.93) states that amalgam is "quite safe for the great majority of patients", but not for hypersensitive ones. The BDA says that, "Sweden is phasing out amalgam use primarily for environmental reasons" (!) and adds that, "Those of us who enjoy fish are taking in just as much mercury from diet as from fillings". Veganism notches up another point in its favour...

...or maybe one and a half points, as the Channel 4 booklet HEALTH ALERT: FLUORIDE states that fish are also high in FLUORIDE, another cause for concern. However, fluoride is also found in non-organic fruit and vegetables as pesticide residues. Tea is also high in fluoride. Besides the dangers of over-consumption of fluoride, any fluoridation of water "is indiscriminate and unethical, since it makes no allowances for the chemical sensitivity, allergies or wishes of the individual" according to the National Pure Water Association. Some areas of the UK have fluoride added to the water, but most have not.

PREVENTION

Taggart King's article DENTISTRY AND DENTAL RESEARCH, LIBERATOR (January-February 1989) notes that decay and plaque build up are preventable. King notes that tooth decay is related to social class. A higher proportion of working class people are toothless than middle class ones. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people who couldn't afford to see the dentist found that pulling the tooth out was a free cure for toothache. VEGAN VIEWS, Autumn 1981, suggests fasting for 2 or 3 days as a cure for toothache.

DIET

What diet is best for teeth? The British Dental Health Foundation (BDHF) states that "dietary information is rather scarce. It is very difficult to get different organisations to agree on the guidelines". It lists the following as "capable of causing decay": fruits (especially if dried), vegetables, cooked starch products, some dairy products, natural or processed foods, cakes, biscuits, confections, fruit juices and soft drinks. Natural or processed foods! Chewing is good for teeth, it promotes saliva which is alkaline and helps neutralise the acid. The BDHF also advises people not to clean their teeth until an hour after consuming citrus fruits because the acid in the fruit temporarily loosens the tooth enamel. Citrus fruit and fruit juices may cause dental erosion, fresh non-citrus is best. The FRESH Network notes a possible problem: modern varieties of fruit may have more natural sugar than traditional ones. The British Nutritional Foundation (BNF) has an information sheet called Diet and Dental Caries. This states that cooked starch (bread, breakfast cereal, biscuits, etc) is more cariogenic (likely to cause tooth decay) than uncooked starch. The BNF recommends removing plaque by brushing teeth, avoiding excess sugar and limiting the "number of eating occasions in the day", as it takes time for the body to get rid of acid build up after meals.

GUMS

Healthy teeth need healthy gums. Dentists are supposed to check that gums are healthy, but there is anecdotal evidence that not all do so. I've had some gum trouble over the last couple of years. A GP advised me, at the slightest sign of a gum infection, clean the teeth thoroughly, floss between them and gargle with salt water 4 times a day. There aren't many dental floss brands to choose from. There may be information in the October 1994 issue of the now defunct Vegetarian Living magazine, but I don't have a copy. Desert Essence dental floss wasn't vegan when I last saw some: it contains bee products. That leaves Johnson and Johnson Reach Dental floss or Superdrug's own brand. The latter seems to have a better policy on animal testing.

Clove oil has a warning on its bottles not to use it on gums, only for teeth, but I found it provided temporary relief from the pain of the gum infection. It didn't last long but the psychological effect of having a break from the pain was marvellous. A herbalist also sold me, on separate occasions, tincture of wild indigo and calendula tincture to cure the gum infection. If advised to, dilute the tincture. Weleda medicinal gargle contains tincture of krameria and myrrh, plus oils of sage, clove, lavender, geranium, eucalyptus and peppermint and homeopathic concentrations of 3 other substances. When used for gum trouble, it is apparently the myrrh that does the trick. Tea tree oil, although marked as unsuitable for internal consumption, may be effective if you use only a drop. It turned out that my gum infections may have been related to a filling that has kept breaking. During repairs to this filling, I avoided the red mouth wash and rinsed my mouth with water instead. I've also managed without injections a couple of times, which sounds brave but isn't. Injections are painful whereas a minor filling may involve discomfort (e.g. from keeping one's mouth open wide and from the deeply unpleasant sound of dental instruments) but very little pain.

EMERGENCIES

The BDA is unenthusiastic about most dental emergency kits (Emergency Repair BDA Fact File, June 1995). It says sugar-free chewing gum can be used in an emergency to fix a crown or bridge "for a few days"! Pre-mixed or two tube mixes of zinc oxide and eugenol are, apparently, the best materials for a temporary filling but not all emergency kits contain these. The traditional advice is to place teeth that have been knocked out in cow's milk until they can, perhaps, be reimplanted. The BDA believes that milk is better than water because it contains calcium, but the tooth could also be kept inside the mouth if possible! If the tooth needs washing, hold it by the crown, not the roots, and lightly rinse it. The main thing is to get the patient and tooth to a dentist as soon as possible.

MISCELLANEOUS

The BDHF claims that nylon is the best material for tooth brushes, not animal bristle. They state that baking soda has "some quite unique benefits" something of particular importance if you want to clean your teeth but have run out of vegan toothpaste and are miles from the nearest place that sells it! The WDDTY Dental Handbook mentions the possible risks with dental anaesthesia. It suggests that root canal fillings may be a source of infection. It recommends that, if this is the case, the affected tooth should be removed, along with the peridontal ligament which attached the root to the bone. Anyone who feels their root canal fillings may be a problem should read the book and weigh the evidence carefully before getting anything removed.

THE FUTURE

A new development is the use of air jets instead of drills (Observer 7.9.97). According to Marie Claire (date unknown), future developments include anti-decay vaccines, the use of lasers instead of drills and less intrusive braces. It also notes that dentists are becoming less inclined to fill in what are called "pre-cavity lesions", ie patches of decay that may heal up by themselves. There is even a device that produces negatively charged ions that are supposed to kill bacteria without the need for drilling (Marie Claire, October 1996).

That seems good except for vaccines. Another worrying development is the use of protein from pigs in a gel that helps diseased gums to grow back (Vegan Views, Summer 1995). It should surely be better to try to prevent gum disease by preventing plaque build up. However I look at the issue, doing my best to look after my teeth and gums makes so much sense... just like veganism!

The WDDTY Dental Handbook is available from 4, Wallace Road, London N1 2PG. 6-35 inc. post. National Pure Water Association: 12, Dennington Lane, Crigglestone, Wakefield WF4 3ET.

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Cross-reference: Medical Matters