Many of us don’t give much thought to oral health – to what’s going on inside our mouth, even though it is probably the body part we use the most. Talking, eating, drinking, smiling and kissing all mean your mouth is in use pretty much constantly.
But oral health is really something we should all be getting our teeth into, quite literally. The health of our mouths and everything in them – teeth, gums and tongue – are a very strong indicator of our general health, says Dr Shuaib Khaderi, family and cosmetic dentist at the International Center for Dental Excellence in Abu Dhabi.
“Oral health is connected to everything, yet we treat the mouth as though it were separate from the rest of our body,” says Dr Khaderi.
Problems in the oral cavity can affect the heart, gut and respiratory system. The inside of your mouth has both good and bad natural bacteria in it. If that balance goes out of kilter, more bacteria get in and spread throughout the entire body. In pregnant women the effects can be as serious as early delivery and low birth weight.
In fact, a patient who needs surgery on the heart or respiratory system, or a transplant, must have clearance from the hospital’s dental department before being wheeled into the operating theater, to ensure there are no active infections in the mouth. A tooth cavity or gum disease can mean more bacteria enters the body, increasing the likelihood of inflammation, bleeding and pain.
Yet the vast majority of us only think about our teeth and gums when we go for our twice-yearly check-up (if we’re lucky) or when we get toothache.
The quality of professional dental care varies greatly in quality and Dr Khaderi, who trained in the US, says he has seen some shockers in more than 20 years of practice.
“I’ve seen some crazy things – for example, burlap sacking stuck on with some kind of bonding material. The patient comes in asking why his mouth smells so bad and I tell him that he has organic material in there, which is not even close to anything that’s adaptable to your mouth environment. But people trust dentists and they don’t know any better.”
Yet keeping our teeth and gums in good shape is not difficult. It’s not time-consuming and doesn’t involve pricey gadgets or expensive gym memberships. It’s when there’s a problem that dental care gets expensive, so looking after them makes sense for your finances as well as your health.
Here is Dr Khaderi’s guide to keeping your mouth and everything in it in good order.
Brush your teeth at least twice a day and preferably also after eating or drinking anything sugary, and even after coffee.
“You know when you order an espresso and it comes with a glass of water on the side? Rinse your mouth out with it,” says Dr Khaderi.
“Most people brush their teeth for 15 seconds tops. Even I do not always make it to two minutes. Divide your teeth into four sections, or quadrants – upper left, lower left, upper right, lower right and brush for two minutes, preferably using a sonic toothbrush.”
He uses a sonic toothbrush with a timer, which vibrates when it’s time to move on to another quadrant. They are also rechargeable.
What to clean with
There are entire supermarket aisles devoted to toothpaste these days, all of which do the job perfectly well. Dr Khaderi is partial to Beverly Hills Formula for its whitening properties. There is also an increasing choice of sustainable, natural products. One of the best is charcoal. It seems counter-intuitive – not to mention bizarre – to use black charcoal on teeth, but it really does work, says Dr Khaderi.
“I lived in India for a few years with my grandparents and they used to give me a bottle of charcoal powder and tell me to rub it on my teeth with my finger. And though it was black, once I’d rinsed it off my teeth were shiny and really clean. Charcoal soaks up all the bad odours too.
“The big name commercial brands are also listening to what’s going on in the market and they’re making a sustainable, natural line now.”
But there is already a tried-and-tested, all natural and very effective product that has been available in the UAE for centuries. Miswak is a twig from the arak tree which has been used as a natural toothbrush all over the Middle East and large parts of Africa and Asia for more than 7,000 years.
“It’s brilliant. As you brush, it softens and does a very good, soft clean, like a soft toothbrush. It’s easy to carry, it’s cheap, you can get it anywhere and there’s no need for toothpaste. It’s amazing,” says Dr Khaderi.
Toothpaste contains fluoride but it tends to get rinsed away before it has time to soak in to your teeth. There are leave-in products on the market or you can simply spit but not rinse when you’ve finished cleaning your teeth.
Sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures can be very uncomfortable and occurs because the gums are receding and exposing more of the tooth to the elements, or because you grind or clench your teeth.
There are products such as Colgate Pro-Relief, which you use like a normal toothpaste but can also smear a layer over the sensitive areas at night as a shield.
“After two weeks to a month of doing this, you will feel great – and that comes not from research or the [toothpaste]company, but from patients giving feedback.”
“Floss, floss, floss,” is Dr Khaderi’s advice. “We see beautiful teeth, take x-rays and there are huge cavities in between, which could have been avoided.
“Waxed or unwaxed floss, use whatever feels comfortable to your gums and makes you do it. I feel the unwaxed kind does cut a little bit, whereas the waxed kind offers a little bit of protection.”
Floss is also changing. “Jordan’s floss is almost like a thread and when you pull on it, it tightens. Then, then when you go into bigger spaces, it expands to get into them, which is what I love.”
“Teeth grinding is huge here,” says Dr Khaderi. “It’s a lifestyle issue. There are a lot of stresses in life here and we take it out on our teeth and jaw joint.”
The UAE”s love of coffee is another reason why teeth grinding is so prevalent; caffeine tightens the jaw.
“Neck pain, shoulder pain, headaches, if your jaw feels heavy in the morning when you wake up, sensitivity, if your gums start lowering – it’s all associated with the jaw bone, “ says Dr Khaderi. “How do you fix it? De-stress. Meditate. Do yoga.”
He also recommends using a protective appliance. Even the over-the-counter ones are better than nothing, he adds.
And of course, a visit to the dentist and dental hygienist every six months is a must.
“Taking care of your oral health is also taking care of your overall health. It’s a team effort and we’re here to educate. As a mentor of mine used to say, let’s take the ‘i’ out of illness and put the ‘we’ into wellness.”
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.