Over the past several years, teeth whitening services and teeth whitening toothpastes have flooded the market. Could our collective crummy diet have something to do with our need for that? Can your diet--beyond just avoiding sugar--even heal cavities? Research from the 1920s and 1930s says yes. Who knew?
Two days ago, I had a dental cleaning. The dentist said I had some brown areas on my upper front teeth and a groove on a lower one that needed fillings. It was late in the day, so he said they'd take x-rays and look at them later.
I can see the spots and groove he was talking about; in fact, they've been there for a few years without growing or causing any pain. In the past year since radically changing my diet to low-carb and taking a bunch of vitamins and minerals every day, my teeth look a lot better. (They used to have a brown tinge and darker brown areas where the teeth touched. I'm not sure my old dentist believed me when I said I brushed twice a day and flossed every night.)
By pure coincidence, a few weeks ago I read a post by John Durant(1) at hunter-gatherer.com about his trip to the dentist. Like me, he had some tiny cavities. His dentist, like mine, was eager to drill and fill:
Well, you have a cavity. Shoot. Where is it? Upper row, left side, molar next to your canine. It's on the side in between that molar and the next molar. What did it look like on the X-ray? Well, it doesn't show up on the X-ray, that other spot was nothing. But it's early -- some of the enamel is gone and it sticks when I press it. What do you recommend? Put in a filling. How much does that cost? ~$350. [Editorial Note: I don't have dental insurance.] I'd like to try a dietary approach first. Hmm.... [long pause]...well, you know that the enamel doesn't grow back. What did you have in mind?Then I explained about Mellanby and Price.The dentist said I was free to wait and see, and said he'd be happy to see if that part of the tooth was still "sticky" in a few months, free of charge. Nice guy. Though I have to say, I've never completely trusted dentists. They have a financial incentive to recommend unnecessary procedures, after all.So I went home and bought some Green Pastures High Vitamin Cod Liver Oil / Butter Oil Blend, already have a lot of Vitamin D, and we're going to run a little experiment of n = 1. And I shot an email to the dentist and bet him $20 that the tooth will heal. Gotta put your money with your mouth is, right? And whether it works or not, you'll hear about it from me.
The Mellanby and Price John refers to are Drs. Edward and May Mellanby, the husband and wife team who discovered vitamin D and identified the cause of rickets. Price is Dr. Weston A. Price, a dentist, who studied the remarkably good teeth of people in remote areas. The doctors ran experiments on dogs and children to see if diet and vitamin supplements could cure cavities. Dr. Edward Mellanby wrote about their results in the book Nutrition and Disease(2) (text courtesy of Whole Health Source Blog):
Since the days of John Hunter it has been known that when the enamel and dentine are injured by attrition or caries, teeth do not remain passive but respond to the injury by producing a reaction of the odontoblasts in the dental pulp in an area generally corresponding to the damaged tissue and resulting in a laying down of what is known as secondary dentine. In 1922 M. Mellanby proceeded to investigate this phenomenon under varying nutritional conditions and found that she could control the secondary dentine laid down in the teeth of animals as a reaction to attrition both in quality and quantity, independently of the original structure of the tooth. Thus, when a diet of high calcifying qualities, ie., one rich in vitamin D, calcium and phosphorus was given to the dogs during the period of attrition, the new secondary dentine laid down was abundant and well formed whether the original structure of the teeth was good or bad. On the other hand, a diet rich in cereals and poor in vitamin D resulted in the production of secondary dentine either small in amount or poorly calcified, and this happened even if the primary dentine was well formed.
So much for "enamel doesn't grow back."
Stephen Guyanet at the Whole Health Source blog wrote a couple of excellent posts on the subject of reversing tooth decay--see this and this. An excerpt from one of the posts(3):
Drs. Mellanby set out to see if they could use their dietary principles to cure tooth decay that was already established. They divided 62 children with cavities into three different diet groups for 6 months. Group 1 ate their normal diet plus oatmeal (rich in phytic acid). Group 2 ate their normal diet plus vitamin D. Group 3 ate a grain-free diet and took vitamin D.In group 1, oatmeal prevented healing and encouraged new cavities, presumably due to its ability to prevent mineral absorption. In group 2, simply adding vitamin D to the diet caused most cavities to heal and fewer to form. The most striking effect was in group 3, the group eating a grain-free diet plus vitamin D, in which nearly all cavities healed and very few new cavities developed. Grains are the main source of phytic acid in the modern diet, although we can't rule out the possibility that grains were promoting tooth decay through another mechanism as well.
(Phytic acid is an antinutrient that gloms onto minerals and prevents us from absorbing them. It's present in grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Read more about it here.)
The Mellanbys' research was written up in an article in the British Medical Journal called "Remarks on THE INFLUENCE OF A CEREAL-FREE DIET RICH IN VITAMIN D AND CALCIUM ON DENTAL CARIES IN CHILDREN."
Dr. Weston Price gave his subjects a slightly different diet, but it, too, cured most cavities says Stephen Guyanet(4):
Dr. Price provides before and after X-rays showing re-calcification of cavity-ridden teeth on this program. His intervention was not exactly the same as Drs. Mellanby, but it was similar in many ways. Both diets were high in minerals, rich in fat-soluble vitamins (including D), and low in phytic acid.
With the above in mind, I started a new diet today. It's not a mile off my old diet, I'm just making a few changes. I'm forsaking all grains, and similar to the children on the Mellanbys' diet, I'll eat more eggs, liver, cream (which is more versatile than butter) and sardines (my idea) for a diet with no phytic acid, but rich in vitamins A, D and K and calcium and phosphorus. There's already very little sugar in my diet. So, for example, I've given up my rice protein powder protein shakes for sugar-free, alcohol-free eggnog (with the usual vitamin and mineral pills thrown in). The recipe is from 500 Low-carb Recipes by Dana Carpender, and it's good enough to be a dessert. No sacrifice there. I'm now throwing in chicken bones when I make soup. It's tasty and I don't have to buy chicken stock anymore, so there's no sacrifice there, either. As for liver and sardines, my tastes have changed since I was eating a lot of carbs. These two foods go well with mayonnaise and cheese, respectively, and I don't find them unpleasant.
In addition, I've ordered the book Cure Tooth Decay and an at-home vitamin D test.
In six months, I'll return to the dentist to see what progress I've made. I'll also pay attention to the groove and spot to see whether they heal.
1. "After a Long Hiatus, John Goes to the Dentist" by John Durant at hunter-gatherer.com. March 2011.
2. Nutrition and Disease by Sir Edward Mellanby. Oliver and Boyd, 1934.
3. "Reversing Tooth Decay" by Stephen Guyanet at wholehealthsource.blogspot.com. April 1, 2009.