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 Integrative Dentistry: Herbal Therapy in Dentistry 
An herb, botanically speaking, is any plant that lacks the woody tissue characteristic of shrubs or trees. More specifically, herbs are plants used medicinally or for their flavor or scent. Herbs with medicinal properties are a useful and effective source of treatment for various disease processes. Many drugs used in Western medical science-called allopathic medicine-have their origin in medicinal plants.

In 2735 B.C., a Chinese emperor recommended an extract from the ma huang plant (known as ephedra in the Western world) as a treatment for respiratory illness. Today, the chemical ephedrine is extracted from the plant and used as a decongestant (e.g., pseudoephedrine). Codeine, derived from opium, has long been used as an analgesic and cough suppressant.

During the Golden Age of Western herbology, which occurred from 500 B.C. to 200 A.D., Western physicians and scholars classified hundreds of plants useful in healing. By the Middle Ages, every household had an herb garden to supply it with medicines. Rhubarb was used as a laxative. Salicin, a forerunner of aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), was derived from the bark of the willow tree. The tranquilizer laudanum, derived from the poppy, was later used to treat the "vapors" experienced by Victorian ladies.

By World War II, herbology was losing popularity in the West. Penicillin and other "wonder drugs" seemed to be cure-alls. And the war itself had cut off supplies of herbs from around the world. The advent of the drug industry with its synthetic medicines seemed to ring a death knoll for herbology, yet plants remain a major source of drugs today. For example, the previously mentioned ephedrine, digitalis (a heart strengthener), and vincristine (an antitumor drug) are all plant-derived.

Ironically, the same research that threatened to make herbal medicine extinct has also proven its efficacy, breathing new life into it. We now know that the peppermint used for digestive disorders since 1800 B.C. relieves nausea and vomiting by mildly anesthetizing the stomach lining. Laboratory analysis has shown that herbs contain vital vitamins, minerals, and natural chemicals that may be essential to curing a diseased body. Echinacea, for instance, is derived from the purple coneflower and was used by herbalists for centuries to fight infection. Research has shown that echinacea stimulates the production of white blood cells, thereby boosting the immune system.

Many moderns, in support of herbal therapies, believe that extracting the chemical rather than using the whole plant eliminates such active ingredients as minerals, volatile oils, bioflavonoids, and other substances that support a particular herb's medicinal properties. Some feel that isolated or synthesized compounds may have harmful side effects because they are so concentrated.

Generally speaking, herbs are used to cleanse the blood, warm and stimulate the body, increase surface circulation, increase elimination of wastes, reduce inflammation, and calm and soothe irritation. Herbs may be used internally as pills, syrups, and infusions, or externally as poultices, plasters, and liniments. An external application of clove oil, for instance, will stop the pain of toothache, as will tincture of hops. Herbs are commonly used as additives to bath water-either full body baths or baths for the foot, eye, or face. Moist herbal wraps, either hot or cold, can be used on specific affected parts of the body. These wraps are especially effective for sore, tense muscles such as those in the neck, shoulders, back, or jaw when temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ) is present.

Herbs, which are powerful healing agents, must be used appropriately. Always know what you are taking. Keep in mind that not all plant life is beneficial. Certain herbs may be toxic, especially when used over a long period of time or in too great amounts. Herbs contain active ingredients that may interact negatively with prescribed medications or other remedies. It is wise, therefore, to consult a health-care professional in situations in which you question the appropriateness of the herb or its interaction with other remedies. Also note that the herbal recommendations found in Part Two are for adults, not children.

The herbs most commonly used for dental problems are described below. Specific advice on the use of these herbs for various conditions can be found in Part Two. Directions for preparing various herbal remedies can be found under Using Herbs in Part Three.

Also known as buffalo herb, alfalfa grows in dry fields, in sandy wastes, and along some roadsides. It reaches a height of one to two feet and has bluish flowers from June through August. The leaves, petals, flowers, and sprouts are commonly used to treat stomach and blood disorders. One of the richest sources of trace minerals and an antioxidant, alfalfa is high in calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, chlorine, and vitamin K.

Precautions and Recommendations

  • Alfalfa is useful in cases of hemorrhaging and fungal infections.
  • Available in liquid form, it is an excellent choice as a mineral supplement.

Aloe Vera
A native of southern Africa, the aloe vera plant has fleshy spiny-toothed leaves and red or yellow flowers It is an ingredient in many cosmetics because it heals moisturizes, and softens skin. Simply cut one of the aloe vera leaves to easily extract the soothing gel.

Precautions and Recommendations

  • Aloe vera gel should not be taken internally in large quantities by those who have hemorrhoids or an] irritated colon.
  • Pregnant women should not take aloe internally.
  • Applied externally, aloe vera gel is excellent for soothing inflamed gums and sores in the mouth.

Also known as sweet fennel, anise is a native of Egypt. It grows to a height of ten or twelve inches and has light green leaves and small yellow-white flowers. The licorice-flavored seeds are used in medicine and as a flavoring.

Precautions and Recommendations

  • An anti-inflammatory herb, anise is commonly used in tea form to soothe the gums.
  • Chew fennel seeds whole to eliminate bad breath.

A small tropical American tree, annatto is a rich source of vitamins A and D-richer than cod-liver oil. The pulp of the seeds, which is used in cooking, yields a yellowish-red dye. The pulp is also used medicinally.

Precautions and Recommendations

  • Apply annatto after tooth extraction or gum surgery.

A mountain plant that grows to about twenty inches in height, arnica has yellow-orange flowers that bloom in the summer. Arnica flowers are commonly used to combat fever, and to stimulate the heart, circulation, and digestive system. Arnica is also a homeopathic remedy.

Precautions and Recommendations

  • Available in creams and ointments, arnica can be externally applied to relieve bruises, strains, sprains, pain, and muscle tension.

Bee Pollen

Fresh pollen obtained from bees contains amino acids, calcium, carotene, copper, enzymes, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, B vitamins, vitamin C, and other chemicals and nutrients. It is effective for combating fatigue, depression, and colon disorders. Pollen has an antimicrobial effect.

Precautions and Recommendations

  • A small percentage of the population is allergic to bee pollen. Use with caution, starting with small amounts and discontinuing if a rash, wheezing, or other symptoms develop.

Black Cohosh
This tall plant, native to eastern North America, has long clusters of small white flowers. Its rhizomes and roots contain estrogenic substances, phosphorus, vitamins A and B5, and several other chemicals and nutrients. Black cohosh is commonly used to treat pain and reduce mucus levels.

Precautions and Recommendations

  • Do not take black cohosh if you are pregnant or have a chronic disease.
  • Overdoses will cause nausea and vomiting.
  • Use black cohosh to relieve cramps in the jaw or neck.

A common plant that grows in almost any moist soil, burdock grows from two to six feet high and has burst The very large leaves-up to two feet long-are poisonous.

Burdock is considered an excellent blood purifier. Its roots and seeds contain a variety of chemicals and nutrients, including biotin, copper, iron, manganese, sulfur, zinc, and vitamins B1, B6, B12, and E. These plant parts are commonly used to treat skin disorders and stimulate the immune system.

Precautions and Recommendations

  • Taken internally, burdock root interferes with iron absorption.
  • Burdock poultices (see Using Herbs, Application Preparation, in Part Three) are excellent for the relief of muscle tension and headaches associated with temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ).

A common wild plant, catnip may reach three feet in height. Its leaves are long with downy undersides, and it has clusters of pale pink, spotted flowers. The leaves have traditionally been used to treat the nerves and intestines. Catnip is excellent for calming the nervous system and controlling irritability. It contains many chemicals and nutrients, including acetic acid, manganese, phosphorus, PABA, sodium, sulfur, vitamin A, and several B vitamins.

Precautions and Recommendations

  • Drink catnip tea or take in capsules to help you relax before dental treatment. (See Using Herbs, Tea Preparation, in Part Three.)

The pungent fruit of the Capsicum frutescens, cayenne is used to treat the heart, circulation, stomach, and kidneys. Cayenne stops both internal and external bleeding.

Precautions and Recommendations

  • When cooked, cayenne becomes an irritant.
  • Saturate cotton with oil of cayenne and place it on an aching tooth for emergency relief.

Chamomile grows in well-drained sunny soil in temperate regions everywhere. A hardy perennial that reaches a height of one foot, chamomile has daisylike blossoms. Commonly used as a nerve tonic, sleep aid, and digestive aid, chamomile is also a homeopathic remedy. It contains calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, and vitamin A.

Precautions and Recommendations

  • Use chamomile as a poultice for pain and swelling. (See Using Herbs, Application Preparation, in Part Three.)
  • Drink as a hot tea to promote relaxation. (See Using Herbs, Tea Preparation, in Part Three.)
  • Use as a mouthwash to soothe inflamed, irritated gums. (See Using Herbs, Mouthwash Preparation, in Part Three.)

The most common of weeds, chickweed is found throughout the world. Its leaves are used to soothe skin irritations.

Precautions and Recommendations

  • Chickweed mouthwash soothes inflamed, irritated mouth tissues associated with oral cancer; it also helps to relieve pain from canker sores and other mouth sores. (See Using Herbs, Mouthwash Preparation, in Part Three.)

The dried flower buds of an East Indian evergreen tree, cloves are popularly used as a spice. They also yield a volatile oil used medicinally and in perfumes. Cloves have antiseptic, stimulant, and antiemetic (vomiting preventive) properties and are used to treat the mouth, stomach, intestines, circulation, and lungs.

Precautions and Recommendations

  • Rub oil of cloves on sore gums and teeth to ease pain.
  • Chew whole cloves to diminish bad breath.

The comfrey plant grows in rich, moist areas and has prickly green leaves along its stalk, which can reach three feet in height. White flowers bloom at the top of the comfrey plant. Its leaves and roots have traditionally been used to treat the lungs, stomach, and intestines. Comfrey contains phosphorus, potassium, starch, tannins, and vitamins A, C, and E.

(Excerpted from The Complete Book of Dental Remedies)
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 About The Author
Flora Stay DDSFlora Stay, DDS holds a doctor of dental surgery degree from University of California, San Francisco. She is the founder of ...more
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