Beyond Baking Soda: A Diet to Cure Damaged Teeth and Gums
When you’re in your teens, focused on your flossing and brushing, and are a proud worshipper at the altar of Colgate, the last thing you want to know is that you may need dentures by the time you’re thirty.
Unfortunately, that’s the exact case that happened to me in one October day. I was seventeen. It’d been a one complete year since I’d become a strict, low-fat, fruit-noshing raw vegan — led there by a cocktail of food allergies and dewy-eyed trust in people from the internet. Probably also distracted by my ongoing brain fog, perpetual shivering, and the clumps of hair making a mass exodus from my scalp, I’d failed to notice the prime victim of my diet: my teeth.
Up until then, I had good associations with the ol’ dental chair. My mouth had only ever experienced one cavity — a fluke in an otherwise nice track record. I’d never missed a day of flossing. I’d never worn braces. For me, dentist visits were a chance for others to tell me pleasant things and make me feel good about myself, even if I’d gotten too old for their goodie drawer of parachute men and Lisa Frank stickers.
So when those familiar compliments didn’t come, the blow was all the more hurtful. After a series of “hmms” and heavy sighs, my dentist spilled the news: a grand total of sixteen cavities — more of an estimate, really, because the cavities-sprouting-from-cavities nature of the damage made it difficult to count. Massive wear capped the surfaces of my back teeth, and my front ones were becoming translucent from enamel loss. Unsightly recession plagued my once-healthy gums.
The dentist didn’t mince words when telling me he’d never seen someone so young with such a horrible mouth — and it’d all happened in just one year.
The next couple of months involved five appointments back in that same room: four to drill the quadrants of my mouth, and one to grind down the misaligned bite I’d acquired from my new ceramic fillings. But that was only the start. Just as soon as I’d gotten the old cavities cleaned up, new ones began appearing. My teeth continued their dramatic decline. The bacteria-filled “gum pockets” crawled deeper from bone loss. I knew a drill wasn’t going to be enough to save me.
To this day, I’ve never seen a group of people with such rapidly imploding dental health as the raw vegans. Even research of their pearly whites seems to confirm that. It’s like some type of hazing ritual, in which the Cavity Fairy comes and sprinkles decay upon the mouths of new recruits. But the issues I faced as a raw vegan were far from unique to meat-free, non-cooking mouths, and neither were the solutions I finally found. For most of us, even those of a real food/primal/Paleo/ancestral persuasion, decades of subpar eating, overzealous brushing, and other teeth-harming practices have left us with some damage to fix.
Zig-Zags and Prongs
Let me clear something up: my journey to healing wasn’t linear. It had lots of loop-de-loops and failures and nights spent looking in the mirror, lips rolled over my teeth, convincing myself I would still be an okay person if I looked like Gumby. There were times after trying things I was sure must work — adding more calcium to my diet, cutting down on fruit, eating tons of kale — where I almost threw in the towel and resigned to a life of oral misery.
But finally, I went from embracing popular beliefs about dental health — that cavities can’t heal, that calcium is the biggest tooth-relevant nutrient, that candy and soda are the only foods you need to worry about — to doing a 180 on all those fronts, and feeling pretty confident in the ability for teeth to regenerate. For anyone out there who’s struggling with dental issues, no matter how harsh, don’t give up hope.
Eventually, my own tooth-healing story, as accidental and fumbling as it was at the time, became something of a two-pronged approach. The first prong was protecting my chompers from the outside in, minimizing sources of external damage. The second prong involved rebuilding my teeth internally, with many delicious things. (That prong was a lot more fun.) Here’s the full story.
Protect and Defend
In real-food circles, when you see a story about fermented foods, typically there are lots of exclamation points and pictures of beautiful bubbly sauerkraut, and testimonies about the slew of benefits those fermented things brought, and there is happiness. So much happiness. For that reason, what I’m about to say might get me booed off the cyber-stage:
Fermented foods destroyed my teeth.
Okay, that’s a bit hyperbolic, especially taking into account my teeth were already wrecked to start with. But when I unveganized, as part of my early healing attempts, I went hog wild on all things kimchi and sauerkraut — convinced the beneficial bacteria would do something awesome for my teeth and hair and everything else on me that was damaged.
What happened instead was ache, and lots of it. I used to sit at the kitchen table with a heaping bowl of gingery, zangy, raw, delightful kimchi, convinced it was the best thing I could be putting into my mouth. A few bites in, my mouth would seize up with sharp, acute ache, evocative of what it might feel like to give birth through one’s jaw while also being electrocuted. The pain was so terrible that it made “dentures by the time you’re thirty” sound like a rather nice idea.
Maybe it was my raging kimchi addiction that kept me blind to reality, but it took months of wincing before I understood those fermented veggies were making my teeth more sensitive, and worsening the damage I was desperately trying to fix. And after a little studying, it was simple to see why: sauerkraut and kimchi have a pH of about 3.5, making them extremely acidic upon contact with your chompers — and capable of chewing through enamel with the best of ‘em. That’s about the same pH level as soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi.
A pH of 7 is considered neutral; anything higher is alkaline, and anything lower is acidic. Foods with pH levels below 5.3 begin entering the “enamel damage” territory, especially if your teeth are already in a compromised state.
Not surprisingly, my tooth pain resolved quite quickly after I began limiting fermented vegetables and other highly acidic foods, especially fruits I hadn’t realized had such a low pH. I can eat those things now without any issues — at least in moderation; I still have to keep my inner kimchi-gorger in check — but during the early phases of healing, I had to be pretty cautious about giving my mouth an unintentional acid bath.
If you’re interested, here’s a list of some of the low-pH foods that ended up on my “limit” list for a couple of years. You’ll notice a lot of fruit on there. Given that my own teeth healing happened with a diet packed with low-acid fruits (papaya and melons, largely), I tend to think the acidity of fruit is a larger issue than its sugar content, as far as dental health goes. (Values taken from a list created by the FDA.)
- Apples: 3.3-3.9
- Apricots: 3.3-4.0
- Blackberries: 3.9-4.5
- Blueberries: 3.1-3.3
- Cherries: 3.2-4.1
- Frozen cherries: 3.3-3.4
- Dill pickles: 3.2-3.7
- Grapes: 2.8-3.8
- Grapefruit: 3.0-3.8
- Ketchup: 3.9
- Lemon juice: 2.0-2.6
- Lime juice: 2.0-2.8
- Mangoes: 3.4-4.8
- Nectarines: 3.9-4.2
- Olives (green, fermented—black fresh or canned ones have a pH of at least 6): 3.6-4.6
- Peaches: 3.3-4.1
- Pears (Bartlett): 3.5-4.6
- Pineapple: 3.2-4.0
- Plums: 2.8-4.5
- Pomegranate: 2.9-3.2
- Raspberries: 3.2-3.7
- Sauerkraut: 3.3-3.6
- Strawberries: 3.0-3.9
- Tangerine: 3.3-4.5
- Tomatoes (canned): 3.5-4.7
- Vinegar: 2.4-3.4
- Orange juice: 3.3-4.2
- Red wine: 3.4
- White wine: 3.0
Together with limiting acidic foods, I used several other tricks of the trade to protect my teeth from outside invaders. I stopped brushing right after meals (turns out, scrubbing enamel before it remineralizes is bad). If I did have a moment of weakness and invade the kimchi jar, I would swish afterwards with water and baking soda to raise my mouth’s pH. Boom! Sensitivity averted. And instead of using whitening toothpastes or other commercial whiteners to fight stains from chain-drinking tea, I began brushing with activated charcoal, which is gentle and miraculous. Seriously. I’m not joking. It’s wonderful.
But those things were only bandaid fixes — ways to prevent my teeth from getting worse, but not really doing much to help them heal. The other leg of my journey was nutritional.
Rebuilding: A Triage of Fat-Solubles
As a vegan, it is, by several universal laws, a requirement to hate the Weston A. Price Foundation. It doesn’t really matter why that hatred is there, so long as it’s strong and vocalized at every relevant opportunity.
In my situation, even after my departure from veganism, I maintained my WAPF-hating duties like a champ. How dare they put a picture of happy people on their webpage! How dare they eat butter! How dare they use… words… and colors. Despicable. I gradually ran out of reasons for my loathing, and after seeing virtually no improvement in my teeth after guzzling calcium supplements and dark leafy greens, decided to peruse their articles on dental healing. That’s when the pieces started clicking together in a big way.
As I learned from a few WAPF articles, three fat-soluble vitamins — A, D, and K2 — tend to be the holy trinity for all things teeth. They function together to support bone and tooth health, boost calcium absorption, and shuttle calcium where it needs to go. My own experience confirmed what I’ve heard time and time again from other self-healers of teeth: this combo works some small miracles.
During Operation Save My Teeth, before I knew anything about fat-soluble vitamins, one of the first non-vegan foods I’d included into my diet was “probiogurt” — a raw, 30-hour fermented goat yogurt I bought from a farm in Huston. It was also the first food that actually pleased my pearly whites: within a week of adding it to my diet, the translucent tips on my teeth became more opaque, and my nagging, chewing-induced sensitivity started to quell. However, I’d stopped eating the yogurt on account of the farm becoming horrible and scammy and no longer shipping the orders I’d paid for.
At the time, I figured the yogurt’s benefit had just been from its calcium content, and was genuinely baffled when supplementing didn’t do diddly squat. Oh, ignorance.
Enter the WAPF website and its vitamin K2 revelations. Epiphany time! As I studied this great nutrient, it suddenly made sense: vitamin K2 is a product of bacterial fermentation, and the “probiogurt” I’d been eating was likely teeming with it. It was probably the first food-based source of K2 my body had seen in years. After that “aha” moment, I began religiously supplementing with vitamin K2.
Shazzam. Practically overnight, my teeth felt smoother, looked whiter, and lost a great deal of their hurting sensitivity. And at my next dental cleaning, the hygienist confirmed a change for the better: some of my “irreversibly” lost enamel was thickening; a few pre-cavity trouble spots were filling in on their own; and the periodontal pockets that’d been getting gradually worse were suddenly tightening back up — jumping from measurements of 4-5 millimeters on most teeth to 2-3. My lost-cause mouth was suddenly not so lost.
Besides supplementing, other K2 sources include natto, hard cheeses, soft cheeses, butter from pastured cows, egg yolks, liver, and probably other organ meats — K2 analyses are pretty sparse for most foods. Since I don’t eat dairy anymore, my main non-pill source is liver. Well, about that...
Together with vitamin K2, one of the most pivotal edibles in my dental saga has been liver. As far as “building strong bones” goes, I’m pretty sure those Got Milk? ads should show people with paté moustaches instead of milk smears, though something tells me that might ding sales. I really can’t appreciate liver enough. While it is a great source of vitamin K2, it’s also amazingly high in vitamin A — something in short supply on vegan diets and even some omnivorous ones, depending on how wisely the animal foods are chosen.
And last but not least, the third member of the fat-soluble gang: . As a resident of the beautiful but gloomy Northwest, vitamin D has been a lifesaver for me, maybe literally. After I moved out of Arizona in 2008 and landed in Portland, I began taking between 1,000 and 3,000 IU of vitamin D daily, depending on how fast I was able to dash outside when the sun makes its forty-second cameo appearance. (There are plenty of feuding opinions on the best dosage, but in terms of keeping the state of my teeth, that’s been my sweet spot.) Although the advantages I’ve experienced from vitamin D have been most noticeable in the realm of mental health (e.g., taking it helps me not be a Seasonal-Affective-Disordered zombie from October to March), I’ve noticed a decline in the state of my teeth when my bottle runs out and I don’t replace it for a few weeks. So, on my shelf it stays.
It’s been a whoppin’ decade since I took my first bite away from raw veganism and towards better health, and seven years since the condition of my teeth really stabilized in a great place. For sure, my mouth will perhaps never return to the pristine state it once held; I still have ups and downs when I’m not vigilant with the fat-solubleness of my diet, and I need more frequent cleanings than the average bear. But I’m 27 now, and all the teeth in my mouth are still mine. In three years, I expect it’ll still be that way.