We know taking care of our teeth is important, but new findings make it critical: Harvard researchers have discovered that gum disease-causing bacteria can colonize the brain and increase the production of amyloid beta, a marker of Alzheimer’s. Plus, in a study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, retirees who didn’t brush daily were 65 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who brushed at least once a day. “This is the latest in a mountain of evidence that shows that the mouth is the gateway to good health,” says author of The Dental Diet ($12.18, Amazon) Steven Lin, DDS, who notes studies have linked healthy teeth to a lower risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart disease.
But breaking news about harmful chemicals in dental floss has us alarmed: Scientists at the University of Notre Dame found that women who use “easy glide” floss have 25 percent higher levels of toxic substances in their blood than those who don’t. The good news? A few switches to your routine can protect your mouth safely — and keep your brain young.
Instead of floss, try a “broom.”
“Flossing dislodges debris between teeth, but traces can remain in the mouth,” warns Nammy Patel, DDS, a holistic and functional dentist in San Francisco. That’s why she recommends flossing before brushing — just make sure you’re using chemical-free floss, like CocoFloss mint, ($25, Amazon).
But if you’re one of the 60 percent of Americans who don’t floss regularly, Dr. Lin recommends Piksters ($11.73, Amazon). “They act like little brooms to remove debris and are easier to work between teeth,” he says. Or consider investing in the reusable alternative that both dentists recommend: a water flosser. Studies reveal that the devices are 33% more effective at removing plaque than conventional string floss.
Brush before you brush.
Using a dry toothbrush cuts plaque and tartar buildup by 63 percent while reducing the bleeding that allows oral microbes to get to the brain by 55 percent, according to a study in The Journal of the American Dental Association.
To Do: Dr. Lin advises using a dry brush for one minute, then brushing with toothpaste for another minute. Be sure to choose a product that doesn’t contain sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), which hinders saliva production. “Lack of saliva can make the mouth a breeding ground for bacteria,” he says.
Also smart: Opt for a paste made with xylitol, a sweetener Dr. Patel says enhances saliva production and has been shown to decrease the risk of tooth decay by 60 percent. An SLS-free paste with xylitol: Tom’s of Maine Botanically Bright ($10.76, Amazon).
Scrape instead of swishing.
“Many commercial mouthwashes contain alcohol and other ingredients that wipe beneficial microbes from the mouth, allowing bad bacteria to take over,” asserts Dr. Lin. That’s why he advises skipping mouthwash and using a tongue cleaner as part of your bedtime routine. Research conducted at NYU reveals that doing so can slash levels of bacteria that contribute to bad breath by 75 percent.
But if you feel your routine isn’t complete without mouthwash, Dr. Lin suggests swishing with a DIY rinse made from three tablespoons of food-grade aloe vera juice, three tablespoons of water, and a drop of peppermint essential oil. One study found that an aloe rinse reduces plaque and boosts gum health as effectively as mouthwash — without microbe-harming chemicals!
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.