Magnesium - The Forgotten Nutrient For Dental Health
It’s common knowledge that the foods we eat can significantly affect our dental health. Refined sugars and acidic beverages like soft drinks and citrus juices, for example, are universally maligned for their tooth–destroying potential; but it seems there are many unrecognized nutritional factors which are also contributing to the uniquely–modern epidemic of poor dental health found in the industrialized world.
By some estimates, in industrialized nations, over 90% of children and adults suffer from dental caries (cavities), and up to 50% of the adult population is afflicted by periodontal disease / gum disease. Though modern medical/dental science seems to place an inordinate emphasis on the role of genetics, decades ago, researchers such as Weston Price and Sir Edward Mellanby provided clear evidence that it was the industrialization of the food supply which seemed to lead directly to the development of tooth decay, dental caries and periodontal disease.
Price, a dentist, investigated the dietary habits of traditional cultures in the early part of the twentieth century. Although the diets of the cultures Price studied varied significantly, all subsisted upon nutrient–rich, traditionally–prepared foods. Price noted the excellent dental health and well–formed dental structures of the people he examined, and found that only as Westernized “foods of commerce” were introduced into the food supply, did dental decay and other Western ailments occur in these societies.
Both tooth decay and gum disease are categorized as inflammatory diseases caused by bacteria on the tooth surface. In the presence of sugars and starches, these bacteria produce organic acids (such as lactic acid) which can erode the tooth enamel and damage the underlying tooth structures, dentin, and cementum.
At first, it may seem logical to kill the oral bacteria as many mouthwashes and oral–care products attempt to do. But like other parts of the gastro–intestinal tract, the mouth is rightly inhabited by certain strains of bacteria. Add to this the fact that the warm, moist environment of the mouth and the unique characteristics of the tooth surface create a nearly–perfect environment in which for bacteria to flourish, and it’s easy to see why the bacterial–killing approach proves largely futile in preventing tooth decay. But the fact that traditional cultures consuming nutrient–rich diets often had almost no incidence of tooth decay or periodontal disease – despite almost a complete lack of dental hygiene practices – seems to indicate that proper nutrition may alter the structure of the teeth, themselves, likely making them resistant to the negative effects of some of the acid–producing oral bacteria.
Not surprisingly, the structural integrity of the teeth is dependent upon many of the same nutritional factors as the structural integrity of bone. In recent years, as marketing and nutritional PR has touted the benefits of calcium and vitamin D for bone health, many people may be doing their teeth a service as well by making a concerted effort to consume these important nutrients. But calcium and vitamin D are merely the tip of the nutritional iceberg when it comes to supporting healthy bones and teeth. An excess of these nutrients may even have the opposite effect – weakening teeth and bone. It’s important, then, that calcium and vitamin D are balanced out with the many other nutrients lacking from our modern food supply – nutrients such as vitamin K, zinc, and the topic of this post, magnesium.
As is the case in bone–building nutrition, magnesium may be an even more important nutrient than calcium for dental health simply because sub–optimal magnesium intake appears to be more widespread than sub–optimal calcium intake. We’ve written elsewhere about the importance of maintaining the proper relative intakes of both calcium and magnesium, and oral health appears to be yet another case in which this is true.
Researchers have found that magnesium deficiency, and a relatively high calcium–to–magnesium ratio, were associated with increased incidence of periodontal disease:
In the above study, subjects aged 40 to 80 years, with the highest calcium–to–magnesium ratio in their serum exhibited greater probing depth (a measure of how fully the tooth is supported by its surrounding tissue – greater probing depth equals more instability of the tooth) and suffered greater tooth loss than those with a lower calcium–to–magnesium ratio (i.e., higher magnesium).
Quote from the above study:
In this report, strong evidence is given to support the existence of a significant association between periodontal health and serum magnesium levels, which becomes even more pronounced when the Mg/Ca ratio is considered. Early animal, as well as clinical, studies suggested that Mg supplementation may prevent or retard periodontitis.
Both calcium and magnesium make up very important structural components of teeth and bone. As in the building of bone, magnesium is required for calcium to be incorporated properly into the structure of teeth. Older research has even found that the greater the magnesium content of tooth enamel, the less susceptible teeth were to decay and caries formation:
With the advent of industrial food distribution, much of the food we eat today (even whole, fresh, foods) and the water we drink often comes from many different geographical locations. But decades ago, people usually consumed locally–grown foods and drank locally–sourced water. As such, their intake of minerals was often directly correlated to the minerals found locally in the soil and groundwater. Research into the relationship between the mineral content of water and soil and disease incidence in different geographical locations often gives powerful evidence of the biological effects of certain minerals.
Such was the case with Deaf Smith County, Texas. In 1941, Time Magazine published an article noting the “perfect teeth” and low incidence of bone fracture among residents of this Texas county:
Quote from the above article:
Teeth just plain don't decay in DeafSmithCounty, on the sandy plains of the Texas panhandle. (Elsewhere in the U.S. 95 out of 100 have dental caries.) This remarkable fact was reported last week to the Houston meeting of the American Dental Association by Dr. Edward Taylor, chief dentist of the Texas State Board of Health.
Subsequently, researcher L.B. Barnett noted the mineral composition of the water in Deaf Smith County relative to Dallas County (where bone fracture and tooth decay were common). He found that the magnesium content in the water from Deaf Smith County was twice as high as that from Dallas County, and surprisingly, that the calcium content in Deaf Smith County water was nearly 6 times lower.
L. B. Barnett, M.D. "New Concepts in Bone Healing," Journal of Applied Nutrition, vol. 7, pp 318–323.
Of course, other minerals besides magnesium may have played a role – like fluoride, for example. But while fluoride seems to confer benefits to teeth when applied topically, high amounts of ingested fluoride are associated with side effects which include weakening of bones and dental mottling – brown stains and tooth pitting. The above–referenced Time Magazine article noted that these effects didn’t generally occur in Deaf Smith County:
Quote from the above article:
In several Midwest States an abundance of fluorine in drinking water causes dark brown mottled teeth, pits and erosions; in Deaf Smith the mottling is very mild.
Interestingly, fluoride is known to interfere with the absorption and incorporation of magnesium into biological tissues. As magnesium deficiency increases in prevalence, the toxicity of fluoride may become more pronounced – another reason why it’s so important to maintain proper magnesium intake.
Quote from the above editorial:
In summary, it can be stated that in intoxication with fluorine compounds, magnesium plays a protective role by countering and reducing the toxic effects of F[luorine]
Especially amidst the current controversy over fluoridation of municipal water supplies, ensuring adequate magnesium intake seems prudent to help prevent fluoride toxicity.
Scientists have noted that poor dental health is often associated with other chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and respiratory disorders. It’s currently unclear whether the associations are causal (people who don’t take care of their teeth may simply not take care of other aspects of their health, either), but nutritional factors, including and especially, magnesium, may ultimately be a common thread in many of these seemingly disparate disorders. A lack of magnesium is well–known to lead to increased inflammation, which is now known to be a common thread running through all disorders of aging, including tooth decay and gum disease.
In the next blog post we’ll examine magnesium’s role in reducing inflammation, and the role our modern magnesium deficiency may play in linking the disorders of tooth decay and gum disease with disorders such as heart disease and diabetes.