By Kristin Ohlson, Experience Life
If the idea of a holistic dentist is new to you, you’re not alone. But if holistic dentistry follows the same path that the rest of medicine has been traveling, the concept probably won’t remain unfamiliar to you and other health seekers for long.
Holistic dentists approach care in ways that depart from conventional treatment. They employ holistic practices to the mouth, seeing the mouth as an integral part of a larger system. Holistic dentists generally reject some traditional procedures, especially root canals and the installation of amalgam “silver” fillings, which they perceive as being potentially harmful or downright dangerous.
And as it was with the alternative practitioners, like chiropractors and acupuncturists, who preceded them, their progressive perspectives are not looked upon kindly by the establishment.
The American Dental Association (ADA) declined to comment for this story, instead pointing to a policy statement on its Web site:
“‘Unconventional dentistry’ is defined as encompassing scientifically unproven practices and products that do not … conform to generally accepted dental practices or ‘conventional’ methods of evaluation, diagnosis, prevention and/or treatment of diseases, conditions and/or dysfunctions relating to the oral cavity and its associated structures … The dental profession advocates an evidence-based approach to oral health care that requires the judicious integration of systematic assessments of clinically relevant scientific evidence …”
But alternative practitioners insist that there’s scant science behind some of the standard procedures of conventional dentistry, as well as a long history of problems and health complications caused by some conventional dental treatments. They can also point to plenty of research that supports their own pioneering work and articulate the need for progress in a profession that they suggest has been mired in traditions that have not always served the best health interests of its patients.
“All dentistry should be evidence based,” says David Kennedy, DDS, past president of the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology, which promotes scientific research on biocompatible dentistry (basically, the avoidance of toxic compounds in dental materials). “Dentists think they are doing evidence-based work when they get out of dental school. But unfortunately, dental schools just teach ADA dogma.”
The Whole-Body Connection
The basic tenets of holistic dentistry are simple: Dentistry should do no harm, and dentists must look at the mouth, teeth, gums and jaws as integral parts of a larger, whole-body system. Holistic dentists see the mouth as more than just a receptacle and processing station for food. Indeed, the health and structural integrity of the mouth both influence and are influenced by everything else going on in the body — from skeletal mechanics to nutritional biochemistry.
Beyond those basic tenets, there is great diversity in how holistic dentists practice their craft. They may employ a wide variety of approaches to support and improve their patient’s overall health — and they may define health as comprising many aspects of physical, emotional and even spiritual well-being.
First visits with a holistic dentist generally involve comprehensive examinations and inquiry sessions that may last two hours or more. The intake forms might ask what other healthcare providers the patient is seeing, including herbalists and acupuncturists. They might ask the patient about health issues that are seemingly unrelated to the mouth: for instance, whether the patient has had disorders of the nervous system — from epilepsy to chronic nerve pain — or suffers from depression, digestive trouble, skin irritation or difficulties breathing. They might ask if the patient is sleeping well, has any phobias or has been dealing with an unusual amount of stress.
All these questions originate from the core belief that the health of the mouth and the overall body are connected. “Disease is always multi-factorial,” says Steve Green, DDS, a second-generation dentist who practices in Miami, Fla. “When someone comes to me with a toothache, I see two problems. One, there’s a sick tooth. And two, the patient is rundown. A healthy person can carry a sick tooth for years, but if they go through a divorce or lose a job, their immune system suffers, and the tooth quickly becomes intolerable.”
Recent studies support the connection between oral and overall health. Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo — funded by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research — showed that people with periodontal disease have a two- to four-times greater risk of suffering a heart attack.
This tie is acknowledged by even conventional dentists, many of whom employ the heart-disease angle to encourage their patients to floss. But even though the health profession overall is moving toward a greater appreciation of the connection between the mouth and the body, the attention holistic dentists pay to medical issues discomfits the conventional dental industry.
All holistic dentists have completed the same professional training that conventional dentists undergo to earn their Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degrees. Many also practiced as conventional dentists long before they decided to shift their practices in a more holistic direction and complete additional training to support what they saw as more promising and productive methods.
Next: Different Takes on Orthodontia and Root Canal Concerns