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If you’re a regular Ask the Dentist reader, you know that we talk about the mouth-body connection a lot. In the past year alone, science has continued to prove just how much oral health affects everything else—heart health, brain health, and even sleep quality.
You might not have thought of dental health when resolving to eat better, sleep more, or lose weight, but surprising as it may seem, you won’t achieve your overall health goals without oral health. It’s that important.
If you want to be healthier this year, then this list is for you. Here are 16 easy ways to improve your mouth-body health in 2016:
1. Reduce your fluoride exposure.
Fluoride is a controversial topic and I’m still undecided. Until I come to a decision on its safety, I’m not ingesting any of it—I’d rather prevent tooth decay with good diet and lifestyle. Shrink your fluoride exposure with distilled water from your local water or natural grocery store. Don’t get the kind called “reverse osmosis” which doesn’t remove fluoride—distillation is the only method that does. My wife and I raised three daughters on distilled, fluoride-free water without any cavities.
2. Dump the mouthwash.
One of the most exciting recent medical discoveries is the microbiome—which is the community of trillions of bacteria that live in our mouth, gut, nose, and brain that control mental health, metabolism, and even heart health. Sadly, we tend to think of bacteria as enemies, not allies. Antibacterial mouthwash destroys these healthy bacteria, causing the wrong kind to grow back in larger numbers, disrupting health everywhere in the body. To give your mouth a much-needed reset, suck on an oral microbiome lozenge, which repopulates your mouth with the good kinds of bacteria. I use Hyperbiotics Pro-Dental, which double as mints! For more on the fascinating science of the microbiome, check out Dr. Raphel Kellman’s excellent book The Microbiome Diet.
3. Switch out sippy cups for real cups.
Sippy cups prevent proper development. When a child sips on the hard plastic, the internal forces in the mouth are different from when a child sucks on a breast. This is why prolonged usage changes how the face grows, causes speech issues, crooked teeth, and even sleep apnea. Yes, your kids will spill, but they’ll learn a lot faster than you think. Ditch the sippy cups and give them a real glass or a cup made just for toddlers like Caveman Cups.
4. Stop brushing so hard!
The harder you brush, the faster you’re done with the chore—or so most of us seem to think. Sawing away at your teeth like this destroys enamel and makes teeth sensitive. The proper technique is extremely light, gentle circles with extra soft bristles. If you have an electric toothbrush, don’t brush back and forth—hold the vibrating brush against each tooth for a few seconds like this.
— Dr. Mark Burhenne (@askthedentist) October 8, 2014
5. Switch to an SLS-free toothpaste.
Most dentists agree that SLS causes canker sores, and yet SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate) is a common ingredient in most kinds of toothpaste, including the natural brands like Tom’s of Maine. SLS is a detergent that strips away the inner layer of the mouth and has literally no positive benefit. The one I use is made by JASON’s.
6. Get a tongue cleaner.
Food will taste better and you’ll eat less. Clean your tongue once a day by brushing it or with a tongue scraper. It takes seconds and it feels great to get all the gunk off—you wouldn’t believe how much buildup we get on our tongues! I use a stainless steel tongue cleaner made by Dr. Tung’s.
7. Make flossing a habit, the easy way.
I’m so excited about this video because this flossing stick makes something we normally hate a much easier… http://t.co/Lb5478zxOP
— Dr. Mark Burhenne (@askthedentist) August 29, 2014
8. Switch to a shame-free dentist.
I can’t tell you how many new patients I get who say they resisted coming in because they were embarrassed about “how bad” their teeth were or ashamed at how long they’d waited to get a cleaning. The right dentist will encourage you and work for you with positivity, not negativity.
9. Switch to 80% cacao or higher dark chocolate.
It contains ingredients that can help remineralize teeth.
10. Start drinking water with your coffee.
You won’t get nearly as much coffee staining if you adopt this habit.
11. Dump goldfish crackers and saltines.
Ever had a cracker and felt how they get sticky in your mouth? That stickiness is what lets bad bacteria feed and proliferate in your mouth, causing cavities and gum disease. The more a food sticks to your teeth, the worse it is. For a crunchy snack, opt for sugar snap peas, Fuji apples slathered in almond butter, or a hard cheese on Mary’s Gone Crackers, which are less processed, full of seeds and ancient grains, and as you’ll notice, don’t stick to the teeth.
12. Start monitoring your sleep.
Sleep is essential to our happiness, health, and performance, yet we rarely think about our sleep quality. Most people have some kind of sleep disturbances but don’t know it because they’ve never experienced any other kind of sleep. There are smartphone apps that record the sounds you make while you sleep so you can get clues as to whether you’re tossing and turning and grinding your teeth (signs of sleep interruptions and decreased REM sleep) or if you’re totally silent and out like a log. Wondering why a dentist is talking about sleep? Here’s how dental health connects to sleep quality.
13. Hold off on whitening your teeth until you have a healthy mouth first.
Let’s get the order right. So often, we want to be thin before we’re fit. First, we have to get our gums healthy, and only then, as a reward, can we whiten them. Make sure your dentist talks to you more about how your teeth function and less about how white they are.
14. Eat less sugar.
Sugar doesn’t just cause cavities, it’s linked to poor brain health, diabetes, obesity, and the worst part is, it’s more addictive than some drugs. Start small by putting less sugar in your coffee and slowly transitioning to drinking it black. Or opt for fresh fruit (not dried) and 80% dark chocolate when you get a sweet tooth attack. Don’t try to be perfect—even cutting your sugar intake a little bit will have a big impact.
15. Change that toothbrush head!
I used to think that toothbrush companies told us to change heads often to make more money—it’s not true!High-qualityy bristles are rounded down at the factory, but as you use them, they become worn down to jagged and sharp edges, acting like knives on enamel and gums. You have to change your toothbrush head every 4-6 weeks to prevent damaging enamel, causing tooth sensitivity and gum recession.
16. Take vitamins A, D3, K2 (both types: MK-7 and MK-4), and ditch your calcium supplement.
Not only will this benefit your cardiovascular health, but I think we’re going to see more data in the coming years as to how these supplements, taken together, help with periodontal disease. I’m beginning to see the benefits in my private practice.
Here’s to your healthiest, happiest, most productive year yet. Happy 2016!
Let me know in the comments—which of these suggestions will you try?
Mark Burhenne DDS