The beehive bacteria-destroyer and 3 other herbs that will help keep you denture-free

By Kerry Bone

Between electric waterpicks and toothpastes promising everything from whiter teeth to an end to tartar buildup, I think it's safe to say that dental hygiene has come a long way since they days when people gnawed on sticks to clean their teeth. But maybe our ancestors had the right idea all along. Most commercial toothpastes and mouthwashes contain fluoride. And while it has been touted by the mainstream for decades as the best protection for your teeth, the truth is that there's just as much - if not more - evidence showing that fluoride actually causes more problems than it solves (not the least of which being that it leads to the formation of abnormal bone crystals, which, in turn, increases your risk of fractures).

Taking a back-to-basics approach to oral health not only protects you from the potential hazards of fluoride and all the other synthetic chemicals in most toothpastes and mouthwashes, but it also does just as good a job of protecting your teeth and gums from cavities, periodontal disease, and gingivitis.

So this month I'm rounding out my series on topical uses for herbs with a few that have some proven benefits for dental hygiene. And just to put your mind at ease, you won't have to chew on any sticks to keep your mouth healthy and denture-free.

The beehive secret to healthy teeth and gums

The first item on the list is one that has its roots in plant sources, so to speak, but is actually produced by bees. It's called propolis and technically it is a resin bees manufacture from plants and use as a sealant when they're constructing their hives. But propolis also has strong antimicrobial benefits against all kinds of bacteria, including ones that cause tooth decay.

In one placebo-controlled clinical trial, researchers investigated the effects a propolis extract as an additional treatment after scaling and root planing for chronic perio-dontitis.1 They found that using the propolis extract in conjunction with conventional treatment was more effective than conventional treatment alone.

Another double-blind crossover study looked at its ability to fight and prevent plaque buildup.4 During each 3-day study period the volunteers refrained from all oral hygiene and rinsed with a 20-percent sugar solution five times a day to enhance plaque formation. One group of volunteers also used a propolis mouthwash twice a day while the other group used a placebo rinse. Halfway through the study, the groups switched mouthwashes. At the end of the trial, the researchers found that the plaque index for the propolis treatment was significantly lower than placebo. Propolis toothpastes have shown similar results and both types of products are available in natural food stores as well as from numerous Internet sources.5

But if beehive sealant isn't quite your cup of tea, there are a few other options to choose from, starting with tea tree oil.

In one double-blind study volunteers received treatment with either tea tree oil gel, a chlorhexidine gel, or a placebo gel.1 While the tea tree oil didn't reduce the participants' plaque levels, it did significantly improve their gum health, reducing both bleeding and gingivitis.

Candy for gum health?

Most people know of tannins as the substances that cause the infamous "red wine headache." But tannins are also found in both green and black tea, and several studies have found that the tannins in tea can prevent two of the major types of bacteria involved in tooth decay, Streptococeus mutans and S. sobrinus, from adhering to teeth.

And one double-blind study also investigated the effects of chewing green tea candy on gum inflammation.8 A total of 47 volunteers were randomly assigned to chew either eight green tea or placebo candies per day for 21 days. At the end of the trial, the green tea group showed improvement while the placebo group had deteriorated slightly.

Blood root beats plaque

Last on our list is an herb that, unlike tea tree oil and tannins, you probably haven't heard of. But the value of blood root in toothpastes and mouthrinses has been extensively explored by herbalists over the years.

Of course, like studies on most herbs and natural substances, clinical trials have produced conflicting results. But the general consensus is that one particular alkaloid in blood root, called sanguinarine, does help curb plaque formation, although it appears to be more effective as a mouthrinse than in a toothpaste.9

One note of caution about blood root: It is a highly potent herb that is best used only for a few months at a time.

1 Gebaraa EC, Pustiglioni AN, de Lima LA, et al. "Propolis extract as an adjuvant to periodontal treatment." Oral Health Prev Dent 2003; 1(1): 29-35
2 Vosnjak M. "The Miracle of Propolis." Thorson: UK, 1978
3 Ramos-e-Silva M, Ferreira AF, Bibas R, et al. "Clinical Evaluation of Fluid Extract of Chamomilla recutita for Oral Aphthae." J Drugs Dermatol 2006; 5(7): 612-617
4 Koo H, Cury JA, Rosalen PL, et al. "Effect of a mouthrinse containing selected propolis on 3-day dental plaque accumulation and polysaccharide formation." Caries Res 2002; 36(6): 445-448
5 Botushanov PI, Grigorov GI, Aleksandrov GA. "A clinical study of a silicate toothpaste with extract from propolis." Folia Med (Plovdiv) 2001; 43(1-2): 28-30
6 Soukoulis S, Hirsch R. "The effects of a tea tree oil-containing gel on plaque and chronic gingivitis." Aust Dent J 2004; 49(2): 78-83
7 Hamilton-Miller JM. "Anti-cariogenic properties of tea (Camellia sinensis)." J Med Microbiol 2001; 50(4): 229-302
8 Krahwinkel T, Willershausen B. "The effect of sugar-free green tea chew candies on the degree of inflammation of the gingiva." Eur J Med Res 2000; 5(11): 463-467
9 Grenby TH. "The use of sanguinarine in mouthwashes and toothpaste compared with some other antimicrobial agents." Br Dent J 1995; 178(7): 254-258

This article was published in the February, 2008 issue of the Dr. Jonathan V. Wright's Clinical Nutrition & Healing newsletter, and is presented here with permission.