"What Your Teeth Are Telling You About the Health of Your Brain" (Part I of IV) by Megan Barnett

My son gets cavities. Ever since he was a little thing, it is almost sure that he will have a cavity at each visit to the dentist. From a holistic nutrition side, I hit the roof each time this occurs because, while my kids get their fair amount of sugar, they also eat an organic whole food diet rich with vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grass-fed meats. They don’t drink soda or juice and they brush and floss regularly. This week, once again, we saw the dentist only to find out that there were a few more cavities to fill. This set my mind spinning because in the world of functional medicine and holistic nutrition, when something is out of balance, there are little warning signs and if those warning signs are not met with a response that rebalances the body, then the imbalance will lead to many more problems, often much more severe and sometimes irreversible. The question I wanted to answer was this; what if my son’s tendency to cavities is indicative of an imbalance that may cause him greater harm later? What if his cavities are the canary in the coal mine? So, I began to research and this is what I found…Cavities may be a symptom of imbalances that are also linked to depression, nervousness, insomnia, irritability, confusion and impaired mental concentration.

Before I get into the nutrients that tie your teeth and your brain together, let’s look at the mainstream approaches to healthy teeth. The conventional answer is reduce sugar and increase dental hygiene. We all know that sugar, in the quantity and forms consumed in Western diets, is not good for your teeth, or any other part of your body for that matter. Bacteria (S. Mutans & Lactobacillus) in the mouth ferments sugar/carbohydrates and excretes acid on the surface of your teeth leading to demineralizing of the tooth structure. Your body is able to remineralize the damaged surface with minerals in the saliva unless the ratio of acid overtakes your body’s ability to keep up with the remineralization process. However, sugar is not the only factor in dental caries. In fact, you probably know people who report “I just have bad teeth” or “It is genetic”. Some people excel in their dental hygiene practices, eat fairly well and still suffer from chronic cavities or dental caries. So what are the other factors and how do they affect your brain and mental health?

Zinc – Research indicates that a zinc-deficient diet increases susceptibility to dental caries (cavities) and that subjects consuming a relatively zinc-deficient diet while nursing offspring increased the risk of cavities to their young.1,2  In a study of children in low-socioeconomic areas, all children tested within normal levels of zinc but those that were treated with zinc supplementation decreased incidence of cavities and increased oral health leading me to conclude that what we consider the “norm” or how we test for deficiency may not be indicative of optimal levels.1  Zinc levels are difficult to test because blood tests and hair testing have drawbacks and accuracy has long been debated. However, it can also be risky to supplement without knowing your zinc level. Copper and zinc are antagonistic so people with higher levels of copper are often zinc deficient. If you supplement with zinc without knowing your levels, you may decrease you copper levels creating copper deficiency leading to other symptoms of imbalance such as increased inflammatory response, high cholesterol, impaired immune system and cardiac rupture. That being said, a hair test last year revealed that my son has high copper levels and low zinc levels so in his case, it is at least worth investigating. In addition to the effect of zinc on oral health, zinc is an antioxidant and is imperative for protein and DNA synthesis. Zinc deficiency may also be affecting your brain and mental health if you are experience symptoms of depression, jitteriness, or impaired mental concentration.3 Other signs that you may be zinc deficient include impaired taste sensation, dermatitis, diarrhea, night blindness, low sperm count, impaired wound healing, anemia (iron deficiency), white spots on fingernails, and susceptibility to infections.3 If you are concerned about low-zinc, consider increasing dietary intake. Food that are high in zinc include beef, lamb, sesame and pumpkin seeds, lentils, garbanzo beans, cashews, turkey, quinoa and shrimp.4  You may struggle with zinc deficiency due to diet or a genetic or factor that results in a decreased absorption of zinc so even with increased dietary intake, you may consider supplementing under the supervision of your healthcare provider.

Make sure to read Part II of this series to learn about more dental signs of nutrient deficiency and how that could be affecting your mental health and cognition.

  1. Uçkardeş, Y., Tekçiçek, M., Ozmert, E. N., & Yurdakök, K. (2009). The effect of systemic zinc supplementation on oral health in low socioeconomic level children. The Turkish Journal Of Pediatrics, 51(5), 424-428.
  2. Cerklewski, F. L. (1981). Effect of suboptimal zinc nutrition during gestation and lactation on rat molar tooth composition and dental caries. The Journal Of Nutrition, 111(10), 1780-1783.
  3. Gaby, A. (Ed.). (2011). Nutritional medicine. Concord, NH: Fritz Perlberg Publishing.
  4. Worlds healthiest foods.com

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Megan Barnett works as an educator and coach facilitating the incorporation of healthy behaviors into her clients’ daily lives using nutrition, lifestyle, and mindful eating to promote overall wellness and optimal functioning. Megan has a BS in Dietetics from Kansas State University, is a certified yoga instructor and is currently completing a Master's degree in Nutrition and Functional Medicine at University of Western States in Portland, Oregon.  www.pepnutritioncoach.com