The oral cavity is home to more than five hundred different species of microorganisms. They inhabit the tongue, teeth, inner cheeks, palate and the tonsils. The oral cavity further links the food pipe, nasal passages, sinuses and the ear cavities. These organisms are not antagonistic and help in the biological processes of the body. However they can turn pathogenic if the system’s immunity falls. Looking at the connection between the oral cavity and the rest of the organs, it is highly critical to maintain good oral hygiene. This means brushing teeth at least twice a day, avoiding too much sugar and visiting a dentist twice a year. Although dentistry is not a specialised branch covered by Ayurveda, it is included in the field of Ayurvedic surgery.
According to the Shalyatantra and Shalakyatantra, one of the branches of Ayurveda, there are sixty-five varieties of oral diseases that can arise on the lips, tongue, teeth, palate and in the oropharynx.
Dental issues range from plaque, bad odour, tartar, cavities, cysts and other infections. An age-old practice recommended by Ayurveda is oil-pulling and it is mentioned in the Charaka Samhita. Oil pulling is a simple detoxification procedure that involves swishing oil in the mouth for about fifteen minutes followed by a warm water rinse. Two methods of oil pulling suggested are: Gandusha and Kavala. In Gandusha, the oral cavity is filled entirely with the oil, gargled for five minutes and released. In Kavala, a comfortable amount of oil is taken and gargled for three to five minutes and released. This procedure is performed first thing in the morning.
The mechanism of oil pulling: bacteria, that are enclosed by a lipid membrane, are attached to the oral tissues. They are then pulled away by the oil, by adhering to the fat molecules of the oil. This procedure not only removes toxins and harmful bacteria from the cavity, but also alleviates the loss of taste. This, in turn, can reverse loss of appetite. Oil pulling also strengthens the gums, removes plaque from in between the teeth and regions where a toothbrush cannot reach. It is also a remedy for dry throat and cracked lips.
Since oil pulling is a detoxification practice, apart from dental hygiene, it is said to have the ability to clear skin blemishes and other skin-related disorders such as acne, eczema, psoriasis and other chronic infections. It is also said to correct hormonal imbalances by establishing regular menstrual cycles and reducing post-menstrual syndrome symptoms. When one falls ill, especially during a fever, the mouth feels bitter leading to a loss of appetite. This used to be one of the foremost indications of a fever. What starts in the mouth can have an effect on the rest of the body. Oil pulling facilitates normal functioning of the kidney and liver. Furthermore, it alleviates respiratory congestion because it has anti-inflammatory effects.
Traditionally used oils include coconut and sesame oil. Sesame oil has antibacterial properties and is effective against microbes such as Streptococcus mutans and Lactobacillus. A study was conducted to evaluate the effect of oil pulling with sesame oil on gingivitis and its efficacy was compared with chlorhexidine mouthwash. There was increased reduction in the plaque index and the total colony count of aerobic microbes in the plaque with oil pulling. Sesame oil pulling has added advantages over chlorhexidine as it has no lingering aftertaste and does not cause any allergies. Moreover, it is cost-effective.
Apart from oil pulling, chewing sticks is another age-old method to maintain dental health. This procedure involves chewing on a herbal twig that is approximately nine inches long with the thickness of the little finger. The sticks that are used commonly include neem and mango. According to the dosha type, specific plant twigs are recommended. Pitta-dominant people are given twigs that have a bitter taste such as twigs of neem or Arjuna tree. Neem toothpastes or tooth powders have shown efficacy against plaque. Kapha-dominant people are recommended twigs that have a pungent taste such as the fever nut or the milkweed plant. They tend to have pale and hypertrophic gums. Vata-dosha-dominant people have receding gums and are given twigs that have bitter-sweet or astringent (Kashaya) taste such as liquorice or black catechu.
Interestingly, the mango leaf is also a great oral hygiene aid due to the presence of a compound known as mangiferin. Mangiferin has antibacterial and antioxidant properties that are effective against strains of Streptococci, Staphylococci and Lactobacillus. The midrib of the mango leaf can be used as a tongue cleaner. Tongue scraping can improve the sense of taste by eliminating bacteria and decreasing bad odour.
The anti-microbial properties of many plants listed in Ayurveda are effective and can improve dental health (Danta Swasthya). The presence of many bioactive compounds present in these plants can reduce the microbial load in the oral cavity and can also detoxify the body of the daily toxin load. The above mentioned methods are safe, cost-effective and are also easily available to all the economic groups in the society. Hence, integrating traditional knowledge of Ayurveda with the modern day dental practices should be encouraged.
About the Author
Ms Varsha Venkataraman
Varsha Venkataraman is a graduate in Applied Microbiology and Cancer Studies. Currently she is the Senior Researcher for the Centre for Soft Power with an avid interest in Ayurveda and wishes to focus on the integrative approach of Ayurveda and modern medicine in the treatment of cancer.