Courtesy of Ask the Dentist.com
To create the ideal environment for cavity formation, naturally occurring bacteria in the mouth must attach to the outer layer of the tooth and begin to digest sugars from food. The bacteria will then produce a colorless waste called plaque that protects the bacteria and supports its continued growth. (Brushing and flossing disrupt this plaque-forming process.)
Additionally, the minerals in our saliva bond with the plaque to form a very hard substance called tartar. This tartar must be removed carefully by a professional, but in the meantime, it begins to dissolve the calcium in the tooth. Referred to as demineralization, this process erodes the calcium rods that form the hard outer layer of our teeth, opening up tiny crevices that allow bacteria to enter and cause decay.
Consequences of Traditional Dentistry
Once decay has set in, we are conditioned to visit the dentist to address these concerns. Unfortunately, there are a multitude of potential consequences of many traditional dental procedures that few patients are aware of.
The mouth is a microbe-rich environment, and the sensitive inner layer of the teeth, known as the pulp, sits within a structure that protects it from this environment.
While drilling through the teeth’s outer structure (the enamel and dentin) is sometimes necessary, it also carries the potential of exposing the tooth’s pulp to harmful bacteria. Additionally, not all filling materials prevent leakage between the microbiome of the mouth and the sensitive pulp. (1)
Anything you put in the mouth that wasn’t designed to be there will have a consequence, even if it is initially meant for positive benefit. Artificial materials—including those used for caps, crowns, and fillings—wear away at a different rate than the tooth’s natural enamel. While potentially impacting the oral microbiome and overall health, these foreign materials will also eventually affect your bite, also known as occlusion.
About 50% of dentists are still using amalgam fillings, which are pure mercury and dangerous—even though the ADA is still supportive of this filling material. On the other side of the coin are plastic fillings. They are better than metal fillings, even though some contain BPA, a known endocrine disruptor.
New materials to replace BPA in dental fillings are still under scrutiny, but even in the best case scenario, fillings that are bonded up against the surface of a tooth will eventually fail. The filling isn’t designed to remineralize, like your teeth can. So, from the day you put it in, it begins to degrade.
Meanwhile, implants don’t have mobility that naturally teeth do—they are rigidly set in bone, unlike a tooth which has built in “shock absorbers” and slight movement due to the ligaments around it. In addition to these daily concerns, there is also the reality that something may go wrong with the medical or surgical procedure when the implants are installed.
History of Dental Issues
As concerning as these common dental procedures may be, the real question is: Why do we have to deal with them in the first place?
For starters, as societies have modernized, diets have changed drastically. Generations ago, our ancestors subsisted on complex carbohydrates and fermented foods, with zero processed foods and limited sweets.
Existing data shows an increase in tooth decay in developing societies. Although a multi-faceted problem, this increase seems to coincide with increased intake of refined sugar‐containing products. In short, as societies have industrialized, there has been an increase in the consumption of simple carbohydrates. (2)
Additionally, the causal relationship between sucrose and cavity development is indisputable (3), and these simple carbohydrates are the most significant dietary cause of tooth decay. (4) Sucrose and starches are the predominant dietary carbohydrates in modern societies, with processed food starches having a great potential for causing tooth decay. (5)
FAQ: Healing Cavities Naturally
Now, if you’re feeling discouraged about your current diet and your risk for cavity formation—don’t be! As I mentioned, it is possible to reverse tooth decay through a process known as remineralization—though there are certain facets of this process that need to be clearly addressed and understood.
Below, I answer seven major questions related to remineralization and healing cavities naturally.
What is remineralization?
Remineralization is the natural repair process of teeth. The saliva in the mouth acts much like the bloodstream in our bodies, transporting various organisms around the different biofilm communities. It also deposits minerals, like calcium, onto our teeth. These minerals bond with the enamel and repair deficiencies. This process is referred to as remineralization. (6
Can cavities really heal on their own?
The short answer is “yes.” Under ideal oral circumstances, including the proper pH, minerals like calcium and phosphorus are deposited onto the teeth via saliva. As saliva comes in contact with your teeth, there’s an exchange of minerals, and these minerals then bond with the enamel and repair deficiencies. (7
However, the impact of demineralizing foods and beverages (including acidic foods and drinks and those containing phytic acid), as well as dry mouth, can’t be ignored. As a result, finding ways to offset these potentially damaging agents is important to furthering the process of remineralization. Restoring a healthy microbiome will allow the nutritive benefits of certain minerals to actually begin to repair damage.
Can all cavities be healed naturally?
No, not all cavities are able to be remineralized—but those in the beginning stages of any formation can be.
Dentists use a number of techniques to identify cavities, such as x-rays, palpitation, and visualization of white lesions, and those that are in the earliest stages of formation are the best candidates for reversal via remineralization.
However, a cavity that has broken through the dentin cannot be remineralized (8), nor can a cavity that’s gone so far that it’s causing localized pain in the affected tooth. When there is pain, it’s usually a sign that the damage is too great to be reversed, and you should see a dentist to have it properly addressed.
Each dentist is responsible for making his or her own call regarding the potential remineralization of a cavity. Between the moment a cavity forms and can be recognized by a dentist and the time it breaks through the dentin layer, there’s a large gray area. Remineralization is often possible in this time, but the cavity must be caught in enough time for reversal, and patients must also determine whether they are willing to take the necessary steps to heal the decay on their own.
For example, if I see a teenage patient with an early cavity who makes a habit of eating junk food and is unlikely to drastically adjust his or her diet, I am unlikely to recommend a remineralization strategy for reversing the cavity naturally. On the other hand, a patient who is somewhat health-conscious and clearly interested in reversing tooth decay is a prime candidate for remineralization.
How long does it take to heal a cavity?
Cavities cannot be reversed overnight, or even in a couple of weeks, but a cavity can be remineralized in months. In most cases, three to four months is a reasonable time frame to expect remineralization to take effect.
Most often, a dentist will suggest you come back in six months if they have found the beginning stages of a cavity. If you are doing the things necessary to reverse demineralization and encourage remineralization, your dentist should see a difference on your next visit. At that point, he or she will recognize whether the cavity is healed (or on its way to healing) and can make a determination regarding further treatment.
How can I stop the pain while I'm healing my cavity?
I would argue that a tooth with localized pain likely contains a cavity that cannot be reversed. This typically indicates that the decay has broken through additional layers of the tooth.
If your teeth are sensitive; you have only very small cavities; and your dentist has told you it’s okay to remineralize and not intervene for a period of time, try the following tips to minimize pain:
What is the step-by-step plan to heal a cavity?
Adopting the proper diet is the main factor in reversing—and preventing—cavities.
You should certainly consume more of the foods and nutrients that help heal cavities naturally, including:
- Calcium and phosphorus-rich dairy
- Calcium-rich seafood
- Vegetables and nuts
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin K2
And you should also avoid foods that inhibit remineralization and actually promote demineralization.
Limit or eliminate highly acidic foods and beverages, or minimize their effect by rinsing your mouth immediately after consuming (or waiting 30-45 minutes before brushing). Similarly, avoiding sugary foods (or negating their effect with rinsing) will also help in the process of remineralization.
If you want to use a mouth rinse, opt for an all-natural mouthwash that does not kill all of the bacteria in the mouth, as beneficial bacteria are need to help rebalance the oral microbiome and promote remineralization. Antibacterial mouthwashes should be avoided at all costs; I also recommend choosing a mouth rinse with a high pH (9 or higher) to promote alkalinity in the mouth.
The environment of the mouth is a delicate microbiome, with varying concentrations of minerals, bacteria, acids, pH levels, and more. Maintaining a balance in this microbiome is important for healing a cavity. Even rinsing out your mouth with plain water can help to rebalance this sensitive environment.
To be sure, keeping your mouth’s pH at a critical level is a continuing endeavor. For example, a tooth left in a simple distilled water solution will begin to demineralize because distilled water has no calcium or phosphate. However, even if the level of acidity in the water is increased, the tooth will not begin to demineralize if the levels of calcium and phosphate are also sufficiently increased. It’s about balance.
How can I heal my child's cavity?
If you’re a parent, you’ve likely wondered why kids are seemingly more susceptible to cavities than adults.
Well, when you’re an adult, your body isn’t growing and laying down bone for growth, like it is in children. In short, the resources for remineralization in a child are just not as available because their bodies are busy growing. Therefore, it is important to increase the levels of calcium and other minerals your child is consuming in order to increase the odds of successful remineralization.
Just like in adults, a reduction in the consumption of sugars—especially those which cling to the tooth’s surface—will help in producing a cavity-healing environment in children.
Additionally, calcium-rich foods are important for rebuilding the calcium rods of the tooth’s surface, and chewing celery after a meal can act as nature’s toothbrush to remove food particles and gently clean the tooth’s surface. Along with properly brushing your child’s teeth, these are simple ways to increase a healthy microbiome in your child’s mouth.
Finally, keep regular dental appointments for cleaning and examination. It’s better to find any potential trouble spots early if you plan to take a proactive approach and attempt to naturally reverse any tooth decay.
Dr. Mark Burhenne
If you want to share your experiences or if you have questions, join the discussion by leaving a comment below. I read each and every single one. Read Next: How to Never Get a Cavity: Remineralization 101