What lessons can we learn about dental health from our cave dweller ancestors?
There is no better time to be alive and kicking than on this very day, in this era. While at a micro level there is still much room for improvement, in the grand scheme of things being born today isn’t bad at all --- especially in America. Diseases that once killed millions in one fell swoop are on the retreat. The advent of the Internet has allowed us to communicate and make a difference for people around the world. Humans, in general, live healthier, happier, and longer than our rotten-toothed, superstitious, and illiterate ancestors.
Recent research, however, may contradict some of our notions of superiority when it comes to even our most primitive of ancestors. Studies show that ancient humans had stronger teeth. Not only that, these archaic peoples also suffered fewer cavities (dental caries) and generally had well-aligned teeth. That’s right, despite all of our meticulous brushing, flossing, rinsing, visits to the dentist, and basic knowledge of germ theory, our hunter-gatherer kin had arguably better, healthier teeth. Researchers have proposed many theories for this.
You are what you eat
According to scientists, development came with costs. The advent of agriculture which revolutionized society and made what we call “civilization” possible also caused a dramatic shift in diet. Hard nuts, tough meats, and fibrous roots were suddenly replaced by soft, sugar-laden carbs. Wheat, rice, barley, corn, and other starchy grains replaced the old staples humans had relied on for eons prior. Unfortunately, our bodies have yet to catch up to our modern diets.
The dramatic increase in simple carbohydrates after the Neolithic Revolution had three massive effects on the human mouth.
First, the shift to carbohydrates meant a spike in sugar intake which in turn supercharged sugar-loving bacteria. Incidents of dental caries and other related forms of tooth decay and gum disease can be directly correlated with the rise of carbohydrates in the average human diet.
Second, with so much sugary fuel suddenly available, these mineral-leaching microbes began outcompeting the so-called friendly bacteria in our mouths that aid in digestion, regulate nutrients, and keep the bad players in check. In other words, our diet has completely changed the ecology of our mouths. The microbiota makeup of the average human mouth today is markedly less diverse than that of our prehistoric ancestors. The addition of highly refined and processed sugars into our diet has only made matters much worse. Humans today have less oral biodiversity than humans at any period in the past.
Finally, the shift from hard-to-chew foods such as tough roots and nuts to softer, starchier fare has resulted in misaligned teeth, or malocclusion, thanks to underdeveloped jaws. One of the unintended consequences of making foods enormously easier to eat is that our jaws have atrophied due to the lack of stimulation. Crowding of the teeth is commonplace in the modern mouth.
Cut the carbs, eat like a caveman
If given the opportunity, any rational human being from the past would trade places with us in a heartbeat. While cavemen may have had healthier teeth, they still suffered from enormous dental wear amongst other more pressing existential threats. When it comes to our dental health there are some useful lessons we can draw on from the distant past. Reducing sugary, starchy, carbohydrates in our diets would be a good start. It might also be helpful to pay more attention to maintaining a balanced oral ecosystem with holistic hygiene routines that aren’t based on the “exterminate all microbes” philosophy that has been popular in decades past. This doesn’t mean you should immediately take up an extreme paleo diet and forgo all modern medicine. Instead, you should think twice about eating that donut and opt for a handful of mixed nuts.
Are you looking for caring and professional dental care? Look no further than Dr. Reza Khazaie and his world-class staff and dentists at Willow Pass Dental Care in Concord, CA. Schedule an appointment below or call us at (925) 326-6114. We look forward to serving you.