If a picture is worth a thousand words, then your smile is worth a million bucks, sometimes quite literally. In order to keep that smile, do go the extra mile! The extra mile begins with dental hygiene, techniques of which can be traced back to thousands of years. We know that early humans did not have the sugary diets that we have today, hence less caries. Meals were usually heavy on protein and light on carbohydrates. The early humans relied mostly on hunting as the primary source of food with supplementary greens. According to National Geographic’s website, people in northern Africa ate purple nutsedge, a notoriously stubborn weed. Its antibacterial properties helped in keeping cavities at bay two thousand years ago. Farming brought along grain consumption and hence the introduction of complex carbohydrates on a regular basis. As consumption of carbohydrates increased, oral bacteria increased and acids began to erode the teeth.

So how do carbohydrates attack our teeth? Well, carbohydrates break down into glucose molecules which are simple sugars. The bacteria in our mouth feed on the sugars and produce acids that attack the teeth, breaking down the protective enamel.

Humans discovered innovative ways of cleaning and caring for their teeth. According to the Smithsonian Institute, early ways of dental care included using rough cloth to rub teeth, as well as using chalk and salt. The original toothbrush was designed centuries ago using a twig and splitting the end to create bristles of sort. This was also a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). It was commonly used by people in the Middle East, China, the Indian subcontinent and many parts of Africa. It is referred to as miswak and contains fluoride. As natural and organic products have become the rage, miswak may make a strong comeback (although it is still used by some). Even some research and health organizations such as the World Health Organization and the National Center for Biotechnology Information have endorsed the use of miswak.

Dental health can be a predicting factor for other diseases. Dr. Ehtesham Ghani, an internal medicine physician in Brookfield, Illinois, has discussed the connection between poor dental health and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. He explained that, “Cardiovascular disease is a symptom of inflammation and poor dental health is linked to high inflammatory burden on the body.

This inflammatory burden causes a breakdown in the lining of the heart’s arteries. Even if you have a normal amount of cholesterol in your blood, the cracks in the lining of the blood vessels act like a primer for cholesterol buildup. Eventually with the buildup of the cholesterol, this can lead to atherosclerosis and eventually a heart attack.” Another concern linked to unhealthy teeth and gums is diabetes. Dr. Ghani explained that the inflammation in the mouth can cause excessive production of antibodies. “This exceeds the amount that is needed to fight the mouth’s inflammation and infection. Hence, the excess antibodies attack other organs and glands such as the pancreas. This can lead to an inadequate quality of insulin production in the pancreas and lead to diabetes.” Poor gum health can also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. “When you think about how all these diseases are affected by inflammation, research also shows that Alzheimer’s can be affected by periodontal (gum) disease. The inflammation from the gums can cause an inflammatory reaction that increases “tangles” in the brain and creates almost a gluelike material in the brain which increases the risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Ghani.

Enough to scare you into not missing your dentist’s appointment every six months. Dr. Asra Ali, a dentist in Downer’s Grove, Illinois, stresses the importance of brushing two to three times a day, and flossing. I know what you’re thinking, “brushing three times a day?” As for a toothbrush, Dr. Ali recommends using a soft bristled, angled brush in a circular motion. She explained that “the hard bristles over time can wear away and remove the tooth’s enamel.” She emphasized making sure that toothpastes and mouthwashes contain fluoride and antibacterial properties. Some medications may have a dry mouth side effect. In order to help alleviate this, Dr. Ali recommends using toothpaste with a higher concentration of fluoride. IFANCA halal-certified toothpastes by Toms of Maine, NSE Products, and Sunrider International are high in their fluoride content.

Without sounding racist, how does one get a bright, white smile? Teeth are made up of an inner dentin layer and a hard outer enamel layer. Basically, teeth whitening treatments use bleaching chemicals to get down into the tooth enamel and set off a chemical reaction that breaks apart the staining compounds. Dr. Ali points out three methods. “Professional whitening treatments are done in the dentist’s office. These are usually one hour treatments that are activated by light and are the most effective. Another method is the at-home professional whitening kit from the dentist’s office. This can take a few days and the third option is the over-the-counter whitening strips.”

If you were a child of the 80’s and 90’s, chances are that braces were part of your life. Who didn’t dread the days you had to get your braces tightened? I would eat mashed potatoes on those days. Let’s not forget the colorful tiny rubber bands that added to the metal mouth look. Today there are more discreet teeth straighteners that are clear and can be removed while eating or at social events.

Cosmetic dentistry has made great headway. There is now the Endosteal dental implant, which is a titanium post (nail-like thing) that is surgically nailed into the jawbone that allows your dentist to mount replacement teeth or a bridge on top. An implant cannot come loose like a denture can and is more conducive to oral health because it is not anchored to other teeth, like bridges. If you are considering implants, you must have healthy gums and a strong jawbone to support them. Sometimes, there is not enough bone height in the upper jaw or the sinuses are too close to the jaw, hence making the procedure complicated or inadvisable. The other type of implant is called Subperiosteal, where a metal frame is fitted onto the jawbone and gets attached to it. Titanium posts, are then attached to the frame, and protrude through the gums and are used for mounting fake teeth.

What about things that we eat that harm the teeth? Let’s not even get started on how candy, coffee, cigarettes, and all things that make Monday mornings more bearable are bad for your teeth. Instead, let’s focus on moderation (we really don’t need an entire chocolate bar…daily). We should make sure we brush at minimum twice a day and floss at night and visit the dentist every six months. Oh, and most importantly with that, don’t forget to smile…it’s a sunnah!

Husna T. Ghani has an MSEd and an MBA. She has taught health and science for years. When she’s not working, she reads, writes, sketches, and tries to save the world (or something like that).