Subgingival plaque the forerunner of a variety of periodontal diseases is caused by certain anaerobes. While Western oral hygienists painfully remove this plaque from the neck of the teeth under the gums, other cultures use traditional, natural methods of inhibiting it.

The many plants used in ethnopharmacology provide for very effective oral hygiene in cultures where the dubious benefits of toothpaste, floss and the enthusiastic endeavours of hygienists are unknown. Generally, leaves, kernels, twigs and resin are chewed, which massage the gums while brushing over and cleaning the teeth. The plant materials used also provide low dose exposure to natural, anti microbial agents. The chewing action stimulates a constant saliva flow which benefits the mouth, as well as, when swallowed, the rest of the body.

Traditional approaches which have been researched have been shown to provide microbial inhibition not total annihilation of viruses and bacteria as the West would have it. In southern India, the seed kernel of Areca catechu is chewed (VK Patel and H Venkatakrishna-Bhatt, Int J Clin Pharmacol Ther Toxicol, 1988; 26: 176-184), as are the seeds and gum of the acacia family in Africa; the chewing sticks of the toothbrush tree (Salvadora persica); the twigs of the Chironia baccifera (tandpynbossie) whose splayed fibres are used almost like toothbrushes; and the chewing tuber of the Berula thungbergii (tandpynwortel) (VO Rotimi and HA Mosadomi, J Med Microbiol, 1987; 23: 55-60). In Bulgaria and Russia, the gummy substance bees caulk their hives with is used (V Dimov, N Ivanovska, V Bankova and S Popov, Vaccine, 1992; 10: 817-823), and in the German speaking region, people brush with a paste containing Slavia officinalis (sage) (B Willershausen, I Gruber and G Hamm, Deutsche Zahnarztliche Zeitung, 1991; 46: 352-355). In parts of Indonesia and Madagascar, Centella asiatica (gotu kola) is drunk (A Benedicenti, D Galli and A Merlini, Parodontal Stomatol, 1985; 24[1]: 11-26). And, in southern and eastern Europe, an infusion of dried Acacia catechu (black cutch) is used as a mouth wash (Scientific Committee, British Herbal Medicine Association, British Herbal Pharmacoepia, 1981; vol III, 557). In western and central Europe, an infusion of red sage makes a gargle and mouthwash and a Krameria triandra (rhatany root) mouthwash is made in South America (William Martindale, The Extra Pharmacoepia, The Pharmaceutical Press; London: 1961: 1026 and Scientific Committee, British Herbal Medicine Association, 1979; 2: 185). Weleda makes a toothpaste from Krameria, too, with extracts of myrrh and liquorice (glycyrrhizate), and a gargle containing, amongst other ingredients, sage, myrrh and rhatany for sore throats, ulcers and tender gums.

Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot) is used by some populations (KC Godowski, J Clin Dent, 1989; 1: 96-101; E Grossman et al, J Periodontal, 1989; 60: 435-440), while in Tibet and China, people chew liquorice root for dental health (L Mitscher, Y Park and D Clark, J Nat Products, 1980; 43: 259-269; D Steinberg et al, Isr J Dent Sci, 1989; 60: 435-440).

Glycyrrhiza glabra (liquorice) has also been proven effective against mouth ulcers, as well as plaque formation (S Pisanty, R Segal, R Wormser, F Azaz and M Sela, J Pharm Sci, 1985; 74: 79-81). A double blind cross over trial clearly showed that glycyrrhetinic mouthwash reduced the number and discomfort of ulcers. It also cuts down the healing time and pain of herpetic gingivostomatitis and recurrent herpes labialis (M Partridge and D Poswillo, Br J Oral Maxillofacial Surg, 1984; 22: 138-145). Other research shows glycyrrhizin to permanently inactivate the herpes simplex I virus and stimulate the release of interferon, a protein which protects against viruses (R Pompei, A Pani, O Flore, M Marcialis and B Lodde, Experientia, 1980; 36: 304-305).

Myrrh (Commiphora molmol) is another useful gargle and mouthwash for ulcers in the mouth and pharynx (Council of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, British Pharmaceutical Codex, London: The Pharmaceutical Press, 1963; 509-510).

!AHarald Gaier

Harald Gaier is a registered naturopath, homoeopath and osteopath.

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