By Dianne Trussell, BSc Hons,Goonellabah, NSW.
When I was a little child, I was already committed to my health. At school we were taught in the subject ‘Health And Hygiene’ to brush our teeth 3 times a day, so I did that diligently. But no-one told us or demonstrated how to actually brush properly. And no-one told us about toothbrush care. They also told us that sugar was bad for our teeth and caused decay and that’s one of the reasons we should brush our teeth 3 times a day. But no-one told us what foods sugar was in! And no-one told us about relating the sugar consumption and the brushing together in time i.e. that you needed to brush your teeth after you ate the sugar and what this would mean for the wellbeing of our teeth.
My mum had false teeth, as she ‘lost’ all hers in her mid-teens. That was so horrifying to me that I was motivated to care for my teeth! Not only that, but because she had no real teeth for her whole adult life, she was no role model for tooth care for her children. Putting your plastic choppers in a glass at night hardly qualified!
So fast forward to young adulthood, and I had tooth decay breaking out everywhere, and extremely thin enamel from too-hard brushing for too long in childhood. To me dentists were demons and the clinic was some version of hell. The burning smells, the intolerable whining of the drill, the pain. Oh, the pain! I’m very sensitive to most drugs, but eventually discovered that I needed double the expected dose of dental anaesthetic to effectively numb my mouth.
So you can understand that I was a bit cranky with the dental profession and health education, and how I perceived them to have failed me.
So I began to find out for myself….
And discovered that there’s a Catch-22. When sugar is consumed, it produces a lot of acid. Acid dissolves tooth enamel. If you brush right away after sugar, your softened enamel gets worn away quickly by the brushing. But if you leave the sugar on your teeth, it gives the bacteria time to use it to eat away at your teeth, i.e. decay!
So what do you do, brush immediately and thin your enamel, or wait and risk decay? Obviously the answer is: don’t eat or drink sugar! But back then, sugar was utterly ubiquitous and normal in everyone’s diet. And as you can see, without understanding the time connection, I was doing both – brushing sometimes right after eating sugar and sometimes long after – and getting both results: thin enamel and decayed teeth, in spite of being a dedicated tooth-brusher! It seemed hopeless. And there had to be something else going on with the tooth decay story.
In my third year of undergraduate studies in Biological Sciences at university, we did a practical class on the main species of bacteria involved in tooth decay: Streptococcus mutans. All the students took a sample from between their teeth with dental floss, which we then cultured in petri dishes to see what bacteria were in there. We tested the strength of the bacteria to produce the ‘glue’ that they use to stick onto teeth and start the decay process. Different strains of the bacteria produced different strengths of glue. To my horror, of all the students I had the most powerfully decay-inducing (‘cariogenic’) bacteria. My strain was a doozy, a patient’s nightmare and a dentist’s dream! So you can understand that my level of interest in the tooth decay process leaped up exponentially at that point.
We had the choice to do an in-depth project in microbiology, and I chose Streptococcus mutans (of course). The scientist who was my microbiology lecturer and laboratory practical supervisor saw my dedication and the quality of my experimental work and kindly gave me special privileges, such as expensive culture media for my bacteria, extra attention, support and resources, and permission to use the labs outside normal hours. Thanks David!
In the course of doing this experimental work, I learned a lot about these bugs that bugged me so painfully. One thing I learned was that they are ‘partial anaerobes’, that is, they are not too keen on oxygen and get on best without it. Hence one of the benefits of flossing every day – it pulls oxygen in between the teeth and below the gum line and can help tip the scales in favour of the human. Sucrose is the favourite food of Streptococcus mutans and it’s when it digests the sucrose molecule that it produces the glue that sticks to teeth – a polysaccharide that looked like colourless honey on the culture dishes. Within half an hour after eating sugar, this glue would already be strong and the bugs locked onto your teeth, so you’d have to brush right after eating sugar. But the acids produced by the sugar are around for about an hour, softening your enamel, so you’d have to wait over an hour before brushing! There’s the Catch-22. So eating or drinking the sucrose present in many forms of food – table sugar, cane juice, golden syrup, molasses, agave and honey – was a no-no. But try eliminating sugar from the diet in the 1960s, 70s and 80s! It wasn’t easy but I did my best.
After uni, I read books on dental bio-films: the layer of bacteria forming an ecosystem on your teeth. The bio-film can both protect and can harm your teeth and gums, depending on how you look after your overall health and your teeth particularly. I learned about the toxic effects (including subtle and long-term) of mercury in dental filling, many of which I had been suffering for decades. And I spent a few thousand dollars and eight months of misery and serious symptoms while replacing my fillings and removing the stored mercury from my body.
So now here I am at 59 with 3 gold inlays, 2 or 3 root canal jobs that I don’t enjoy at all, and 3 other teeth that are more filling than teeth. One inlay came off on a Friday night and I had to go the whole weekend with a ring of ‘razor blade’ enamel and exposed nerves in my mouth. One fell off while in India, and fortunately I found a very skilled dentist to stick it back on for me. The root canals sometimes used to get infected with anaerobic bacteria that are smelly, and I had to floss 3 times a day and bathe the tooth in peroxide to knock out the offenders. My enamel is so thin that my beautiful, ‘well’ cared-for teeth look greyish from translucency and yellowish from easy stainability, and thus people think I don’t clean my teeth! But my dentist knows, and was gobsmacked – he said in all his years of practice he had never seen such clean teeth and gums!
So why, if I have the cleanest teeth my dentist has ever seen, have I had so much trouble with my teeth? Could there be more to it than just eating sugar? Lots of other people I know kept eating sugar, and did not take nearly so much care with cleaning their teeth, but their teeth are fine. Why the difference?
Since studying with Universal Medicine, I have come to understand that there is more to teeth than roots, dentine and enamel. In fact, our teeth may reflect our karma – not just the choices we have made in this life, but the choices we have made in other lives. Now that is something worth pondering on!
Do your teeth reflect the way you have been living?
Read more about dental health:
- Life, stress and dental problems
- Responsibility and Dental Health
- Sugar and Dental Decline
- My teeth and what they have taught me