Until the rise of agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago, there was nearly no tooth decay in the human race. Cavities became endemic in the 17th century but started to become particularly problematic from the 1950’s.
It appears that tooth decay started when people started farming, rather than hunting and gathering, indicating that tooth decay is the result of a mismatch between what the modern diet and lifestyle and what humans evolved to eat.
There is, however, one notable exception. Hunter gatherer skeletons with teeth that were in horrible condition were discovered in a cave in Morocco. Almost every skeleton had cavities. These people also happened to have a diet high in acorns, which are high in carbohydrates and stick to the teeth. Not all hunter-gathers had pristine dental health, but this does imply that achieving strong dental health through an evolutionary appropriate diet is possible, as the Moroccan cave dwellers’ downfall was through high carbohydrate-based foods.
There is a clear relationship between sugars and dental cavities. Both refined and simple carbohydrates, are recognized as by far the most important dietary factor in the development of tooth decay. The acidic fermentation of sugars by bacteria in the mouth causes tooth enamel to degrade. It follows that a diet low in sugars can help minimize the instances of tooth decay.
The Oral Microbiome
Natural selection and the evolutionary process have not been able to keep up with the rate of human innovations like farming, sugar, and processed foods. All these developments have created an imbalance in the mouth, which evolved under vastly different environments than what mouths are currently exposed to. Your mouth evolved to be chewing tough meats and fibrous vegetables. Sugar laden fruit was a rare and special, seasonal treat in Paleolithic times. The modern diet is filled with heavily processed foods requiring minimal energy to chew and break down including smoothies, coffees, sodas, bread, cookies and crackers.
Unfortunately, simply switching to a Paleo diet to prevent tooth decay is only part of the solution. Modern lifestyles have caused a shift in the types of bacteria that populate the mouth, stimulating the population on specific bacteria.
A diversity of bacteria is critical to a healthy ecosystem in the body. Just as you need a specific balance of bacteria for a healthy gut, you need a well-balanced oral microbiome to maintain a healthy mouth. Certain strains of virulent bacteria that are particularly efficient at utilizing carbohydrates begin to dominate over other, more important strains.
Streptococcus mutans, the strain of bacteria most associated with tooth decay, started expanding exponentially about 10,000 years ago, at the dawn of the agricultural revolution. Modern, processed foods created a perfect environment for this bacteria to not only increase in population, but to become dominant over the other, less numerous strains. Modern diets have created less diversity in oral bacteria populations by feeding harmful bacteria, and, when combined with antibacterial soaps, mouthwashes and antibiotics many beneficial strains are eradicated.
The Oral Systemic Connection
What happens in the mouth has a direct impact on the rest of the body. Bacterial populations from the mouth make their way to the gut microbiota. This can alter immune responses and potentially lead to systemic diseases.
Studies have supported that bacteria originating in the mouth may also adhere to the lining of the heart and may cause infective endocarditis along with many other heart related problems. Strep throat, which originates in the mouth, left untreated, can result in heart damage, and even death.. People with gum disease are also more likely to develop diabetes.
Your saliva contains digestive enzymes and digestion begins the moment food enters the mouth. Each time you swallow, whatever is in your mouth enters your digestive tract.
When less desirable, disease-causing bacteria enter your bloodstream, they wreak havoc throughout the body. What may begin in the mouth does simply end there as nothing in your body happens in a vacuum. It’s all connected.
Modern diets and lifestyle have created an ecosystem that is low in diversity and full of highly adapted, potentially harmful bacteria that are thriving on a diet high in simple sugars and carbohydrates. The dominance of these bacterial strains in the oral microbiome mean the mouth is in a constant state of imbalance and dis-ease. Paleo man had a healthy mouth and therefore a healthy body.
The Role of Probiotics
Probiotics, unfortunately, do not work directly in the mouth.
However, dietary sources of probiotics will have a positive impact on your oral health. Fermented vegetables, Kombucha, and Kefir are great ways to get probiotics into your diet. These good bacteria can help to restore a healthy ratio to your digestive system, which will, in turn, can have a positive effect on your teeth and gums. Remember, everything is connected and nothing in the body functions in isolation.
If you want to directly improve the oral microbiome, studies show that certain supplements do make their way to the mouth and improve the bacterial ratio when combined with good oral hygiene. These include:
- Vitamin C
- Coenzyme Q10
- Vitamin D3
- Vitamin K2
Many of these nutrients are abundantly available when following a Paleo protocol.
How A Paleo Diet Impacts Your Mouth
Following a Paleo diet will benefit the health of your mouth, gums and teeth in numerous ways simply through the elimination of grains, sugars, processed carbohydrates, additives preservatives and other modern manufactured foods. The Paleo diet encourages the consumption of well raised animal proteins, eggs, leafy greens, buts and seeds, all of which are packed with vitaminsB12, C and D, calcium, phosphorous and other nutrients that strengthen teeth and fight harmful bacteria.
The Paleo diet is rich in fibrous plants. Foods with fiber help keep your teeth and gums clean. They also stimulate saliva flow. Next to good home dental care, this is your best natural defense against cavities and gum disease. Saliva begins to reduce the effects of the acids and enzymes attacking your teeth when sugars and simple carbohydrates are consumes. Saliva contains traces of calcium and phosphate and supports restoring minerals to areas of teeth that have lost them from the bacterial acids. The consumption of healthy fats from olive and sesame oils, avocados, nuts and seeds further protect teeth by helping them re-mineralize.
The Paleo Diet also shuns beverages that are bad for your teeth. Nut milks are okay when unsweetened, but water remains the beverage of choice. When it comes to oral health, water helps remove some debris from the teeth, stimulates saliva flow, and maintains adequate hydration within the oral cavity.
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To further support your oral health and help prevent cavities, ensure your Paleo plan is
- Limited in sugars (this includes Paleo friendly sweeteners and fruits)
- Rich in fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K2:
- Inclusive of less popular choices like liver and other organ meats
Abundant in important minerals, not just calcium – like oysters, bone broth and bone-in cuts of meat
It’s true that nobody can completely control the health of their teeth. Certain genetic predispositions may help to explain why some people are cavity prone despite their best dietary and oral hygiene efforts.
Following a diet supportive of your oral microbiome can, however, impact even these people. Following a solid Paleo nutrition plan can dramatically reduce the risk of tooth decay and cavities, and even help rebalance some of your oral bacteria.