A man goes to the dentist and says, “I’ve got a terrible toothache”. The dentist takes one look at the tooth and says, “There’s nothing wrong with that tooth. You need to get your intestines cleaned out”. The man undergoes colonic irrigation and the pain in the tooth disappears.
Another man who’s pulled a hamstring muscle goes to see his dentist for a check-up. The dentist makes a quick realignment of one of his teeth, and his hamstring problem is cured.
These seemingly fantastical cases are just a few selected from the patient files of David Hefferon, one of a small handful of holistic dentists in Britain.
In itself, holistic medicine is not new. In the 1980s, it was the buzzword for seeing the patient as a whole person, and also referred to the integration of a number of different medical systems, both alternative and conventional. The concept has taken years to arrive in the relatively staid world of the dental profession.
Nevertheless, holistic dentistry is now one of the fastest-growing branches of medicine. It has taken off in the US (where it’s called ‘biological dentistry’), and there’s a growing band of practitioners in Europe.
Of all the medical specialties, dentistry has always been the one most set apart from the rest of doctoring. In terms of physical wellbeing, the teeth are seen to be almost irrelevant, with no apparent connection to either health or illness. This is an attitude that dentists themselves have reinforced. In Britain, for example, they have divorced themselves from the rest of the National Health Service (NHS).
But evidence is mounting that teeth are an integral part of health, with links to diseases in other parts of the body. For example, gum disease can almost double your risk of a heart attack, and low levels of vitamin B6 can cause tooth decay - two facts that your ordinary dentist is unlikely to have ever mentioned to you.
“Nutrition is just one of the tools I use,” says Hefferon. “I also look at the patient structurally, energetically and chemically.”
Central to Hefferon’s approach is the way he has set up his clinic. Under the same roof as his high-tech dental surgery, he has gathered together a team of alternative therapists - a cranial osteopath, a herbalist, a nutritionist and a physiotherapist who specialises in energy medicine. “We each have our area of expertise, and there’s lots of interreferring,” he says. “For example, if something I’m doing in the mouth isn’t working, I can get advice on what the underlying problems may be - and have them sorted out on the spot.”
The importance of bite
One of the guiding principles of holistic dentistry is the importance of the ‘perfect bite’. If the top and bottom teeth don’t mesh correctly, this can set up stresses in the jaw. We open and close our jaws about 2000 times every day, so a bad bite will lead to chronic muscle stress. There are ligaments that connect the teeth to the jawbone, and these have stretch receptors that are constantly trying to readjust the jaw muscles to ease the stress on the teeth. This, in turn, creates spasms in the muscles surrounding the joint that connects the jaws to the skull - the so-called temporomandibular joint (TMJ).
Learning about the TMJ is essential for any holistic dentist because the jaw joint is linked to virtually every part of the body. The importance of the TMJ was first discovered by chiropractors and osteopaths, who called it ‘the great impostor’ after they discovered that TMJ dysfunction can be linked to a whole raft of problems that have no obvious connection to the jawbone. These include postural and back (spinal) problems, arthritis, headaches, and leg, neck or shoulder pain (J Am Dent Assoc, 1987; 115: 251-6; Minerva Stomatol, 2002; 51: 167-71; Acta Med Austr, 2004; 31: 18-22).