Lindberg: Healthy mouth, healthier you

Annie Lindberg

Annie Lindberg

Our mouth, gums, tongue, and smile reign as reflections of whole-body health.

Yet today, tooth grinding, tooth decay, and gum disease — including inflammation, bleeding, and recession run rampant. In fact, nearly half of adults over 30 harbor gum disease, as do over 70 percent of adults over 65. Gum disease correlates with increased risk of a plethora of health challenges, from heart disease to Alzheimer's, depression, sinus infections, stroke, and diabetes. Research also suggests pregnant women with gum disease are three to five times more likely to birth preterm, low-weight babies.

The inflammatory microbes that gather and grow in the mouth can access the entire digestive system, traveling the gastrointestinal tract through the esophagus, stomach, intestines, and colon. Further, they can access the entire body, including the brain, by slipping into the bloodstream. Accordingly, poor oral health enhances systemic disease.

Not only does Western medicine highlight the connections between oral health and systemic mind and body wellness, but Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine do as well, and have for millennia. In fact, both Chinese and Ayurvedic practitioners gain meaningful understanding about which systems of the body are imbalanced by observing the tongue alone. Its color, coating, moisture, degree of swelling, texture, sublingual veins, and cracks all inform the trained practitioner, providing important clues to physical and emotional wellbeing.

The 5,000-year-old Ayurvedic tradition offers a legacy of oral dinacharya (the Sanskrit term for daily self-care rituals that help support optimal wellness). These practices — including tongue scraping, oil pulling, gum massage, and whole body selfcare — can be added to routine brushing and flossing to enhance the health of the mouth, and in turn, the body.

Tongue scraping: Tongue-scraping is traditionally practiced in the morning before even a sip of water, to help eliminate toxins from the mouth. During sleep our body works to break down damaged cells and regenerate healthy tissues. The waste products (termed ama in Ayurveda) ideally move out of the body via urine, stool and sweat. Excess ama that is not promptly processed accumulates in the body, including in the mouth and on the tongue.

Tongue scraping helps disrupt and remove the bacteria that lead to gingivitis, thus promoting healthier gum tissue. It also freshens breath, improves taste, enhances digestion, and stimulates the large intestine to prepare the body for a regular morning bowel movement.

A tongue scraper is a u-shaped metal tool (traditionally copper, though stainless-steel works well, too) with smooth edges that gently scrapes ama off the tongue. Place the scraper as far back on the tongue as is comfortable, drawing it forward along the tongue and picking up coating and residue along the way. Then rinse the scraper and repeat six to eight times. Often, even if the tongue appears clean, the scraper will extract a gray sludge, which over time as the mouth and body become more vital and healthy, will appear clear.

Oil-pulling: Oil-pulling involves plopping a spoonful of oil into your mouth, swishing it around for a couple minutes, gargling, and then spitting it out. The spit at the end is key as oil pulling dislodges and concentrates bacteria that you don't want to swallow and recirculate. Traditionally Ayurveda recommends sesame oil, though coconut oil works excellently, too. Both oils offer antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and tissue-rejuvenating properties. By nourishing the tissues, oil-pulling not only strengthens the gums but can reduce jaw tightness and TMJ symptoms.

Brushing and flossing: Much has been written on the importance of routine brushing and flossing. Though not traditionally part of the Ayurvedic dinacharya, I would consider both to be essential twice-a-day dinacharya additions today.

In the clinic, I have often witnessed a transformation of health in patients who added twice-daily flossing to their routine. Not only do I see reduced gum bleeding and sensitivity as patients’ gums heal via daily flossing, but also improved digestion and vitality, with reduced bloating and abdominal discomfort. Your mouth, your digestion, and your life force energy are intricately linked.

Ayurveda would embrace brushing and flossing in the same way it promotes other dinacharya rituals — as opportunities for mediation. Rather than daydreaming while cleaning your chompers, bring your attention to your breath and to the little circles your brush makes as it gently massages your gum tissue and teeth.

Gum massage: After tongue scraping, oil pulling, flossing and brushing, wash your hands and then massage your gums in gentle circles with your finger for a few minutes. Like tongue scraping and oil pulling, gum massage has been integral to Ayurvedic dinacharya for millennia. You'll notice your gums transform after only a few weeks, assuming a stronger, healthier texture. By massaging your gums you facilitate blood and lymph flow which helps generate new, healthy gum tissue, and in turn, a healthier you.

Healthy eating, sleeping and movement: Though this article focuses on daily oral care routines for fostering mouth health, from an Ayurvedic perspective the root of all health is strong digestion, deep sleep and a balanced life (including nourishing relationships, work, exercise routines, and mindset). By caring for your body, you care for your mouth, and by caring for your mouth you care for your overall health and wellbeing.