“Your mouth is the gateway to your entire body.” So says holistic dentist Steven Lin, DDS, in his compelling new book, The Dental Diet: The Surprising Link Between Your Teeth, Real Food, and Life-Changing Natural Health. Lin writes about the mouth–body connection and how dental health can clue us in to underlying health problems.
“In society we see our dental health as more of an inconvenience or vanity factor than anything else,” Lin says. “But does anyone stop to think about why a hole formed in their tooth at all? Your teeth provide crucial signals from your body when it’s in distress and you’re not providing it the right material to be healthy.”
We caught up recently with Lin and talked about how oral health — including how crooked our teeth are — is affected by lifestyle factors such as nutrition.
Experience Life | What effect does the oral microbiome have on overall health?
Steven Lin | Dental healthcare has, in a way, been ahead of the times in respect to bugs. We’ve known tooth decay and gum disease are driven by harmful bacteria. And those connections have been linked to serious end-stage diseases like heart disease. What happens in the middle has been less understood.
We swallow trillions of bacteria every day. That’s thousands a second. If that isn’t a profound marker of how important your mouth is, then it’s hard to see what possibly could be! One of the biggest advances in medicine in recent years is the appreciation of the gut microbiome and its role in chronic diseases all over the body. The mouth is unequivocally linked to your gut, so your oral microbiome is a measurable and accessible way to see how your body is working.
When we look at dental diseases such as tooth decay and gum disease as microbiome imbalances (and not simple infections), we begin to build a systemic view of the body.
EL | In a chapter called “It’s Not Genetic,” you talk about how crooked teeth are not about genetics but about poor nutrition. Can you explain how nutrition leads to crooked teeth?
SL | Firstly, crooked teeth have not occurred for the vast majority of time that humans have walked the earth. Anthropological studies show that the phenomenon has appeared roughly since the Industrial Revolution. Other studies show that in one generation of poor nutrition, cultures that have been living on traditional diets for thousands of years all of a sudden start to have dental malocclusion, or crooked teeth.
How it happens is a testament to the new field of epigenetics. Our body is constantly listening to the environmental signals that we provide it. Breastfeeding is the best example of how nutritional input guides the growth of the jaw. The physical suckling motion of breastfeeding develops a young child’s jaw, just as chewing tough, fibrous, or collagenous foods keeps our adult jawbones strong. It also provides the fat-soluble nutrients that guide hormonal and calcium balance in the body to direct skeletal and jaw growth.
If we take the physical nutrients of food away — think processed foods — our jawbones don’t have that feedback anymore. If we take the whole-fat foods away that provide fat-soluble vitamins, our bodies can’t direct calcium or guide growth through the osteoimmune system. Then we have a craniofacial system that adapts, and what is the result? Small jaws and crooked teeth.
EL | Evolutionarily speaking, when did our oral health start to decline and why?
SL | We are a species with amnesia, who forgot how to feed ourselves.
Anthropological studies of dental disease show it as disease of “mismatch” or modernity. The two big points in history are the agricultural and industrial revolutions, or when we began to change our food supply in a big way. The funny thing is that most of what we know about our ancestors survives in the jaws and teeth because they are the sturdiest parts of the body that survive in the fossil record. So, what did our ancestors’ teeth look like? Straight, with no cavities and no gum disease.
All of the conditions we see in the mouth today, including crooked teeth, happen only when we eat the modern diet. A child who needs braces at age 12 is suffering the same problem as an adolescent who needs their wisdom teeth out. Their jawbone hasn’t grown enough to fit 32 human teeth, which it has for nearly all the ancestors that came before us.
The 4 million U.S. kids who need braces and the 10 million wisdom teeth extracted every year are a testament to eating the wrong diet.
EL | What can crooked teeth and other mouth issues tell us about underlying health problems and our overall susceptibility to chronic disease?
SL | If you have a crooked smile, it’s telling you something very important about your development. Teeth sit in the jawbones, which sit in the craniofacial system. When the jaws don’t grow, the teeth don’t fit, and teeth aren’t the only thing in your head.
Jaws that are small and cramped also hold small and cramped airways. As a result, people with crooked teeth often have breathing problems. This can mainly be attributed to mouth breathing over nasal breathing.
Breathing through your mouth is a survival mechanism and should never become your primary mode of delivering oxygen to your body. In fact, it does a very poor job of sending oxygen to all of your cells.
EL | You write that crooked teeth “are an epidemic among children.” Why is this?
SL | The issue at its core is not eating enough of the nutrients that signal the body and provide the building blocks to grow strong, wide facial features.
Once we have a period of growth in the jaw that is stunted, the child’s airways are likewise not developed as they should be. The child then compensates with a habit such as mouth breathing, soft chewing, and low tongue-posture, which doesn’t provide the jaw with the correct physical signals to grow accordingly.
Orthodontic braces may address the crooked teeth, but they don’t address the myriad other issues that led to the crooked teeth. We know that kids eat too much of harmful foods like sugar today; however, dental health provides the platform to understand growth and development issues as a nutrient deficiency and may provide clues to other issues like behavioral, metabolic, and gut issues that really are just a result of eating the wrong diet.
EL | So, how can we turn our dental health around? What are some of the main principles of the Dental Diet?
SL | Oxygen is the No. 1 nutrient, and breathing correctly, with the correct oral posture, helps to deliver this. Nasal-breathing exercises, tongue posture, and facial-muscle balance can be used to help deliver oxygen efficiently. On top of this, the physical nature of chewing (hard, fibrous, and collagenous foods), delivering physical nutrients to the jaw that send the correct neurological signals to the body and brain.
Also, fat-soluble vitamins, such as A, D, and K2, are one of the most important parts of the human diet. Every meal should be based on getting some amount of them. They are found in a certain set of whole-fat animal foods that rely on proper sourcing. These include egg yolks, butter, and organ meats. Reintegrating these foods into your regimen means you will be giving your body enough of the fat-soluble vitamins that more or less do everything in your body, including keeping your teeth and bones strong.
EL | What’s your take on teeth whiteners?
SL | For healthy teeth, they can be used to increase shades of brightness of tooth enamel. However, a full oral examination to rule out any underlying issues is recommended first.
EL | How about fluoride?
SL | Fluoride has been seen as the gold-standard of dental prevention. It needs to be seen as a treatment that has its advantage and drawbacks. Diet provides the core capabilities for your body to withstand dental disease. If you know what you’re putting into your body, there’s no need for fluoride.
EL | What causes tooth sensitivity?
SL | Exposed areas of the teeth can become sensitive to hot and cold stimulus. Generally, it may mean there is an issue that the tooth is communicating to the nerve of the tooth. The body releases a protein called osteocalcin to repair these problems. They are released by vitamin D and activated by vitamin K2, so actually increasing your vitamin D and K2 levels can activate these proteins that can decrease your tooth sensitivity.
EL | Lastly, a lot of people use tongue scrapers. Are you a fan of this, or should people worry less about scraping off bacteria and more about getting the oral microbiome back in balance?
SL | The surface of the tongue can house buildup of bacteria that may become a source of imbalance such as in bad breath. Ultimately, diet is the way to balance your microbiome; however, tongue scraping can help remove potential harmful colonies and reset the microbiome environment. Try doing it alongside your oral-hygiene regimen.
Steven Lin, DDS, is a board-registered dentist in Australia and the author of The Dental Diet: The Surprising Link Between Your Teeth, Real Food, and Life-Changing Natural Health. Check him out on his website and on Facebook.