Growing up in the United States where trips to the dentist begin (and often traumatize us) from an early age, it is easy to get the impression that oral hygiene is a universal given.
However, most of the world’s population, particularly those of developing countries and indigenous cultures, still rely on primitive dental hygiene methods – if they practice oral hygiene at all!
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While one might assume that modern products, techniques and cleaning methods are vastly superior to the sticks, feathers, porcupine quills, and animal bristles used elsewhere in the world, is this really the case? Or is there something else that plays a bigger role in determining our oral health?
No toothbrush, no toothpaste?
Instead of toothbrushes to scrub the gunk off teeth, many regions of the world use tree parts for the job. Oak, neem, cheery wood, mango, cashew, coconut and antiseptic arak trees are all utilized for the task. Twigs can be broken in half, and the broken end splayed and softened into a makeshift toothbrush used to wipe teeth clean. When it comes to toothpaste, rural residents of Africa, India, South America and Southeast Asia use brick, charcoal, mud, salt, ask or rangoli powder for the job. While such methods may sound seem primitive, there are some religious societies that rely on the good, old brush-teeth-with-finger method!
World leader in cavities
With such wide disparities in dental hygiene techniques throughout the world, it is tempting to assume that modern methods would result in significantly improved oral health. However, that is not the case. It is still common for people in modern societies to develop cavities and require orthodontic work to correct crooked smiles, even despite having more advanced methods of dental hygiene. Meanwhile, many indigenous members of traditional societies where tooth brushing is rare or minimal have perfectly straight, white teeth and no cavities at all.
So what causes cavities then?
Aside from less sophisticated teeth cleaning techniques, two things that traditional cultures with healthy teeth have in common is a lack of access to Western foods that contain white flour and processed sugars, and an abundance of vitamin K in their saliva. Vitamin K blocks the formation of acid buildup, which is a main cause of cavities. The vitamin is found in many of these societies’ traditional foods, such as egg yolks, goose and chicken liver, fermented foods, and grass-fed animal fat and raw butter. However, societies that abandon their native diets in favor of Western processed foods begin to show more cavities and crooked teeth in the next generation.
Such evidence reveals that diet plays a large role in determining one’s oral health. While junk food unsurprisingly contributes to cavities, even natural carbohydrates like rice, pasta and bread break down into simple sugars, which lead to decay.
Does oral care even matter?
Considering the importance of diet when it comes to dental health, one may be discouraged to continue on with the “floss and brush twice a day” routine. However, don’t ditch the toothbrush in favor of twigs and goose liver just yet.
Oral care is still an essential component of overall health. Mouths are naturally full of bacteria, and ignoring dental hygiene can cause gum inflammation. This can also lead to a low-grade infection that can cause inflammation and other issues throughout the entire body. These health problems include brain fog, gut inflammation, autoimmune diseases and fatigue. One study even showed that brushing less than twice a day causes an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Although diet is a big factor in dental heath, oral hygiene is still important not just for good smiles, but good health.
Gina Volpe is a New York City-based writer. While she hasn’t used any twigs to clean her teeth, she is ashamed to have resorted to the finger-cleaning method a time or two. Aside from flossing regularly and brushing numerous times a day, she also reads the Boston Dental Group blog to keep her teeth in top shape.