While traditional dentistry focuses only on the areas above the neck, holistic dentistry looks at the patient as a whole system and how the mouth relates to the rest of the body.
Applying a biological concept to the practice of dentistry began in the late 1800s, when the National Dental Association recognized the harmful effects of mercury (amalgam) fillings, and mandated that members of the association not use these on their patients.
As of 1997, this warning has been recognized and acted upon by several foreign countries that have either banned the use of mercury in fillings or are in the process of doing so. Supporters of holistic dentistry state that mercury in amalgam fillings causes ill effects when placed as an implant in the body.
Further beginnings of holistic dentistry are linked to a 1925 article by the dentist Weston A. Price (1870–1948). A former director of research for the American Dental Association, Price claimed in an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association that such degenerative diseases as heart troubles, kidney and bladder disorders, arthritis, rheumatism, mental illness, lung problems, and several kinds of bacterial infections arise from root canal therapy, or endodontics.
To come to this conclusion, Price conducted research that involved implanting teeth from the root canals of individuals with symptoms of severe heart problems and kidney disease under the skin of healthy rabbits.
These same conditions arose in the rabbits, and within three days they died. Price then implanted the same tooth in another rabbit and found a similar response, but he also found that implanting a normal extracted tooth did not affect the rabbits.
Price’s root canal research became known as the “focal infection” theory, and because of its popularity, led to the extraction of millions of endodontically treated teeth. Further research conducted during the 1930s ridiculed Price’s theory by calling it invalid, ending the once-recommended extractions.
Price also maintained that sugar causes not only tooth decay, but is responsible for physical, mental, moral, and social decay. This judgment came about as he and anthropologist Francis Pottenger observed primitive areas throughout the world whose natives did not have cavities.
Although concluding that the lack of sugar in their diets led to good oral health, critics have since pointed out that Price overlooked the fact that malnourished people do not typically get many dental cavities.
Support of Price’s theories continued, especially from a dentist named Melvin Page. Page coined the phrase “balancing body chemistry” and considered tooth decay an “outstanding example of systemic chemical imbalances.”
In an attempt to aid these problems, Page marketed a mineral supplement with claims that widespread mineral deficiencies were an underlying cause of several health conditions, including goiter, heart trouble, tuberculosis, and diabetes.
He also claimed that drinking cow’s milk was unnatural and the underlying cause of colds, sinus infections, colitis, and cancer. There is no research supporting Price’s statements, and his mineral supplement was never supported by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
The origins of holistic dentistry remain with Price’s manuscripts and photographs at the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation in La Mesa, California. Founded in 1965, the Foundation promotes nutrition, megavitamin therapy, homeopathy, and chelation therapy.
Since the late 1800s, supporters of holistic dentistry continue to state their concerns regarding several procedures and recommendations of conventional dentistry including the use of fluoride in drinking water and in teeth cleansers.
Holistic dentistry is said to be an emerging new field of probiotic dental medicine—a type of medicine that supports the life process. Those who practice this form of biologic dentistry claim that it is aesthetic, relatively nontoxic, and individually biocompatible, or life supporting. A holistic dentist uses physiologic and electronic methods to locate areas of chronic disease that are difficult to locate by current standard methods.
The benefits of holistic dentistry are said to be the result of its incorporation of hypnosis, homeopathy, aromatherapy, nutrition, and herbology.
When hypnosis is used, patients are able to relax their bodies and minds by concentrating on suggestions of relaxation. The patient is fully aware of what is happening during their treatment and no drugs are used. Many holistic dentists employ specialist hypnotherapists to provide treatment that is highly effective and cannot cause any harm or produce any side effects.
Homeopathy is used by holistic dentists as a natural approach to their practice. The therapy is a safe and natural alternative that is nonaddictive and effective with both adults and children.
Homeopathic remedies are used to improve the psychological or emotional condition of patients without the drugging effects of conventional tranquilizers. The three main remedies considered by holistic dentists include: aconite (foxglove); gelsemium (yellow jasmine); and argentum nitricum (silver nitrate).
Aromatherapy uses the pure oil essences from plants and flowers that act as hormone-like stimulants to improve a patient’s health balance. Used because they are natural and gentle, oils like lavender, bergamot, sandalwood, and basil are beneficial in their power to soothe, relax, and calm. Some holistic dentists use these oils to make their offices more inviting to the patient.
Holistic dentists believe that stress and tension are often linked to diet. Dietary excesses or deficiencies increase the body’s needs for essential vitamins and minerals, and the stress and tension accelerate any fears or phobias of the patient.
Botanical medicine and herbal medicine
Holistic dentistry may use herbs to promote relaxation. The sedative properties of chamomile, limeflower, vervain, rosemary, and valerian are relied upon in place of conventional drugs.
Holistic dentists may incorporate acupuncture and physical therapy into their use of clinical dentistry. The more modern sciences of neural therapy, hematology, immunology, and electroacupuncture may also be incorporated into a holistic dental practice.
Biological dentistry’s main concern is the toxicity of metals and their release from fillings and replacement appliances (such as metal partials and crowns that have nickel) used in dentistry.
According to supporters of holistic dentistry, the metal ions separate from their original structures to diffuse, migrate to, and become absorbed in the tissues of the body, affecting the overall integrity of the immune system. An additional biological concern is “oral galvanism,” or the direct electrical currents generated by separated metals throughout fluids and tissues in the body.
Hidden or residual infection, or the abnormal changes in the soft connective tissue containing dental material that cannot be processed, is believed to cause local and general defenses that put the body in a continuous state of active conflict, often leading to chronic disease.
According to those who practice holistic dentistry, there may be several major types of dental problems that can cause illness or dysfunction in the body, including:
- silver (amalgam) fillings that typically contain 50% mercury silver
- root canals
- cavitations, or neuralgia-inducing cavitational osteonecrosis (NICO), a term coined by the oral pathologist J.E. Bouguot in the 1980s
- electro-oral galvanism from dissimilar metals
- temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ), a painful condition of the jaw and its supporting muscles
A biological approach to dentistry ensures the use of treatment and therapies that cause the least disturbance to the immune system. In order to determine the appropriate method of treatment, a holistic dentist must thoroughly review the patient’s medical and dental background.
While the method of biological dentistry varies for each holistic dentist, the keys to preparing their patients remain education and communication. Treatment is individualized.
A typical initial visit consists of an interview process, examination and x rays. Pictures of the patient’s mouth are often collected with state-of-the-art equipment that uses film providing 50% less radiation than standard systems. The second meeting is typically called a “Review of Findings” appointment that educates the patient about the mouth and proactive treatment choices.
Although proponents of holistic dentistry continue to increase, so do critics of their alternative methods. Believers in biologic dentistry claim that root canal-treated teeth cause NICO and other chronic systemic diseases and require removal of all these teeth and the healthy teeth surrounding them. Critics state that these extreme measures are bizarre and dangerous.
According to a 1994 article in Milwaukee Magazine, a group of local patients filed suit against several holistic practitioners who had removed several of their perfectly healthy teeth after guaranteeing improvement of their diseases. These patients experienced no relief from their ongoing health problems after the extractions.
Certain side effects have been reported as a result of treatments used by holistic dentists. Patients who were treated with auriculotherapy, or acupuncture of the ear, have experienced complications from unsterile needles.
When correcting a “bad bite,” holistic dentists often place a plastic appliance called a mandibular orthopedic repositioning appliance (MORA) between the teeth. The long-term use of MORAs has been reported to cause the patient’s teeth to move out of proper alignment, leading to the need for orthodontics or facial reconstructive surgery to correct the deformity.
With amalgam fillings being one of the main concerns of holistic dentists, many have turned to using nontoxic composite materials, but these too have come under scrutiny. The plastics used in the composites have been linked to leaching compounds that may be dangerous to health.
Research and general acceptance
While dentistry has been reportedly undergoing a quiet revolution with the emergence of holistic dentists, their complementary methods remain under criticism. The nutritional supplements they prescribe to “balance the body chemistry” and the methods holistic dentists use to reach their recommended treatment continually attract negative comments.
Hair analysis, computerized dietary analysis, or blood chemistry screening tests are used by some practitioners as a basis for recommending supplements. Critics state that hair analysis is not a reliable tool for measuring the body’s nutritional state, and computer analysis, while useful for determining the composition of a person’s diet, is being used by dentists who may not be qualified to perform dietary counseling.
Blood chemistry screenings are processed in laboratories, but while the results may indicate a “normal” reading, holistic dentists use a narrower range to read the results, indicating to patients that their bodies are out of balance and need treatment.
Amalgam (mercury) fillings have been an issue of research for both the traditional and holistic dentist. While holistic supporters ban the use of amalgram, scientific testing has shown that the amount of mercury absorbed from fillings is only a small fraction of the average daily intake from food.
The U.S. Public Health Service concluded in 1992 that it was inappropriate to recommend restricting the use of dental amalgam. In 2002, a report said that a U.S. representative in California introduced a bill in Congress that would prevent dentists from using amalgam fillings nationwide by the year 2006 because of their mercury content.
The American Dental Association opposes banning amalgam and says that it does not add to mercury levels in the brain. Results from two trials being conducted by the National Institutes of Health on amalgams will not be released until about 2005.
Although supportive research is limited regarding the alternative methods used by holistic dentists, advocates of the complementary treatment continue to grow. With the formation of the Holistic Dental Association in 1978, a shift to treating the entire patient’s health needs is emerging from dentists, dental hygienists, and health care practitioners from all fields who endorse these ideas.
Many of the medical services provided by holistic dentists are paid for by health care insurance in the United States (excluding HMOs and Medicare). Insurance typically pays for “usual and customary” treatments, such as laboratory tests, doctor visits, medical treatment, and x rays, but it will not cover “experimental drugs.”
Training and certification
Holistic dentists are those who have been trained as an authorized practitioner of dentistry through a school of medicine acquiring a degree as a Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.). Their focus is one that combines conventional teachings with new, complementary methods to treat their patients’ health needs.