Braces: Heavy Metal or Harmonized Health

Getting braces is considered a rite of passage for today's teenagers. If you were like most North American teens, around age 12 you were marched into an orthodontist's office, and after a few hours of fitting, gluing, and tapping you walked out with a mouth full of metal brackets, braces, wires and bands to straighten your teeth. Perhaps even a few of your permanent teeth were removed beforehand in order to make enough room in your mouth for evenly spaced teeth.

The medical term for crowded teeth is malocclusion, or bad bite. Today, most Western children have some form of a malocclusion, an overbite, under-bite, or crooked teeth, and so they spend a few years with teeth covered in stainless steel, nickel, titanium and/or ceramic.

There is a story behind modern malocclusion; a few hundred years ago crooked teeth were an uncommon misfortune, and a thousand years ago a bad bite was altogether rare. Why are we down in the mouth today?

There are two schools of thought regarding the devolution of our mouths. One school states that a genetic miscue in our DNA occurred in the last several hundred years that led to underdeveloped jaws and crowded teeth. The other school argues that "new" environmental factors are contributing to prevalent under-formed mouths. (Scientists often think in terms of millennia, so a 200-500-year-old issue is considered new.) Multidisciplinary research conducted over the last the few decades tends to support environmental causation.

University of Kent anthropologist, Dr. Noreen von Cramon-Taubadel, was intrigued by this de-evolution in human anatomy. She examined 11 sets of ancient skulls and jaws from people groups on each continent. Half of the groups were farmers and half were hunter-gatherers. She noted that farmers had a starchier diet than the hunter-gatherers, and they had shorter and weaker jaws, as well. She concluded that as humans transitioned from a hunter-gatherer diet to a domesticated agricultural diet, human jaws and palates shortened leading to crowded teeth.

In the 1920's, Dr. Weston Price, renegade dentist and author of Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, travelled abroad to study the environmental factors and lifestyles of non-Western, indigenous families. He noted that the people who were raised eating their culture's traditional (non-Western) diet had nearly perfect dentition. When people from the same cultures were introduced to a Western diet, they began to develop tooth decay, and within two generations they started having children with malocclusions resulting from smaller jaws with narrow arches and palates.

Malocclusion is more than a cosmetic issue; improperly positioned and crowded teeth lead to increased tooth decay, cracking, chipping, and inappropriate wear. A bite that is slightly imperfect can create problems in the head and neck, like TMJ, teeth grinding, and headaches.

When the upper jaw is narrow the palate is compressed and deep, verses wide and shallow. The palate is also the roof of the mouth and the floor of the nasal cavity. If this space is compressed, we end up with pinched airways and nostrils impeding good airflow. Restricted nasal passageways force people to sleep with an open mouth to get sufficient air. The rate of sleep apnea, often characterized by snoring due to open mouth breathing and an obstructed airway, continues to rise at an unprecedented pace. In the United States, as many as 15% of adults have sleep apnea.

Braces Change Faces

We turn to braces to fix our smiles, and we do so in droves. On any given day, approximately four million people in the United States are wearing braces to correct a malocclusion. While the goal of orthodontic treatment is more than aesthetic, people who take on the discomfort of braces do so with the goal of improving their appearance. A person may have perfectly straight teeth post-braces; still, there is more to good-looks than pretty tooth placement.

The widespread use of braces may mislead us into thinking that orthodontic intervention is a risk-free fix-all. Orthodontists know better. A signed waiver-release form is usually required before an orthodontist fits a person for braces. Outlining the potential issues and risks involved with braces, the waivers include statements such as these:

• Your mouth is a living system, and how it will respond to medical treatment cannot be perfectly predicted.
• Growth patterns affecting the facial structures and the teeth can take unexpected turns and may undermine the goals of treatment.
• Atypical tooth development and unique growth in the jaw may interfere with treatment.
• The mouth is a dynamic system that changes and adapts throughout life. Changes that occur to facial bones, teeth and jaws after orthodontic treatment may affect tooth alignment.
• Forces applied to the teeth via braces stimulate cellular responses in the roots of the teeth, the gums and the tissues around the roots allowing the teeth to be moved and adjusted. It is possible that the nerves in a tooth will die in response to these forces.
• Braces may erode the tooth enamel and permanently damage the roots of the teeth, compromising their viability.
• Teeth adjusted with braces may be more susceptible to damage or death in a future jaw or gum injury.

Scientific justification warrants these statements. It is important to understand the implications because braces may be a detriment to your health and appearance. Research reported in the American Journal of Orthodontic Dentofacial Orthopedics has shown that the tweaking and torqueing of braces on teeth damages and shortens the roots of the teeth. The same journal published a study that demonstrated that up to 90% of enamel can be damaged with fixed appliances like braces, and it happens quickly after the braces are applied.

Traditional orthodontics, especially with children, may permanently impair the appearance of the face. Braces artificially constrain or redirect the normal and natural direction of growth, especially of the jaw. For example, the upper jaw is pulled back by braces to fix an overbite stunting the normal pattern of growth. Thus, instead of growing in a normal pattern, the face grows disproportionately vertical, or long.

Like Pulling Teeth

It is common in orthodontic medicine to extract up to four teeth, plus the wisdom teeth, before applying braces to make enough space in the mouth for the braces to work. Most orthodontists are taught that the size of our facial bones is an inherited genetic trait, and their plan of treatment reflects this belief. If genetics dictates that your jaw is too small for a full, straight set of permanent teeth, then some of your teeth must go! Even though, as omnivores, human biology requires jaws wide enough to hold all 32 permanent teeth. Each tooth has a role in the efficient metabolism of food and in the alignment of facial and cranial bones, in addition to creating an expressive, 10 tooth wide smile.

The removal of permanent teeth compromises the symmetry, shape and overall youthful appearance of the face. The aesthetic changes that occur post-extraction are similar to facial changes in advanced age: a longer, less full face with lower cheek bones, thinner lips, and a nose that is out of proportion to the face. Add these changes to the vertical growth encouraged by braces and the result is often a highly out of proportioned face.

Extraction is particularly problematic with children who are still growing and maturing. The Metal Mouth Forum, a public forum on braces, offers a warning; "Extracting teeth from children can result in less than optimal facial aesthetics. In other words, you child's face may not wind up looking as good as it could have, because it will grow longer and flatter instead of fuller.” An orthodontic journal, recognizing the vertical growth pattern caused by orthodontia, conducted an experiment where members of a panel assessed the attractiveness of face profiles. The panel concluded that longer profiles are considered less attractive.

Face First

Straight teeth do not create a good-looking face,
but a good-looking face will create straight teeth.
~Dr. John Mew

Functional orthodontics (FO) is a new and growing field that harmonizes its methodology with our biological plasticity to improve the overall look of the face, which also makes space for evenly placed teeth. The chief goal of functional orthodontists is to protect and promote well shaped faces with good facial structure and balance. One method used in this practice is inserting an appliance in the mouth that gently expands narrow arches, palates and jaws so that the teeth can grow in straight from the beginning or greatly reduce the length of time that braces must be worn. Rarely do functional orthodontists resort to removing permanent teeth.

Merle Loudon, dentist and renegade thinker, noticed that many of his youngest dental patients suffered from chronic ear pain and other development issues, including temporomandibular dysfunction and an overbite. He designed an effective solution to these problems called Primary Molar Build-Up. The child's primary (baby) lower molars are built up in height with composite crowns that are cemented to the top of the tooth. The crowns stay on until the permanent molars grow in. As the permanent molars erupt, the crowns encourage the lower jaw to grow forward correcting the overbite and widening the dental arch so that the permanent teeth have plenty of space. Frequently, primary molar build-up will prevent the child from needing any braces later in life. This procedure does not require anesthesia, and, in most cases, it causes little interference with eating. Before you agree to this procedure, it is important to find out the content of the composite. Porcelain and plastic composites leak toxins in to the mouth. Accept only biologically safe composite material. (For more information on the toxicity of mercury, metals and composite material used by dentists and orthodontists, read Holistic Dental Care: The Complete Guide to Healthy Teeth and Gums.)

In 2003, 60 Minutes, a television news program, produced a fascinating segment on functional orthodontics. Peter Overton interviewed functional orthodontists and a few of their patients to examine the difference between traditional orthodontic methods and functional orthodontia. In one dramatic case, Overton talks to identical twins, one treated with traditional orthodontia and one with functional orthodontia. Before treatment, the boys were identical. It is easy to tell them apart after treatment; the young man who was treated traditionally with extractions and braces has a noticeably smaller chin and weaker jaw.

Grow a Beautiful Face

Drs. von Cramon-Taubadel's and Price’s research revealed that diet is the primary determinant of healthy development. The processed, refined and industrially grown food consumed in the standard American diet has proved to be less than ideal for health, and it is void of the critical nutrients need for bone development. In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Price noted that none of the indigenous people with perfect dentition that he studied were vegetarians. Their diets were comprised of a combination of grass-fed meat and organs, raw milk and butter, fish, eggs from free roaming chickens, cod liver oil, fermented foods, soaked nuts and freshly ground grains along with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Their diet supplied specific nutrients, vitamins and minerals, required by our bodies to feed our bones and allow them to form fully for proper development and growth of infants and children. The standard American diet inadequately meets those requirements.

Chew the Fat

The diets of the indigenous peoples and the hunter-gathers were high in fat from both plants and animal sources. The current low fat/high carb diet craze is exactly the opposite of what worked for our ancestors. When cows, pigs and chickens are allowed to eat their natural diets out in the pasture, including grasses and herbs, their fat is the storage house for fat-soluble nutrients, including A, D, E and K2, that they accumulated from their diets. When we consume animal fat from meat, organs, eggs or dairy, we are ingesting some of the animal’s stored vitamins and minerals. These same products from factory raised animals are insufficient in these vital nutrients because the animals' diets are narrow and nutrient-depleted.

Distinct from the vitamin K that we get from eating greens like kale and spinach, K2 is found in meat and dairy. You can see the vitamin richness in the dark orange and gold color of pastured butter, egg yolks or cheeses. Vital for bone growth, K2 gets calcium where it needs to go and removes the excess calcium from tissues. Vitamin K2 is also manufactured by intestinal flora; a couple of servings of fermented foods every week, like natto (fermented soy), sauerkraut, kimchee and some cheese, like aged Gouda, are great sources.

Our bodies and bones also need vitamin D for efficient calcium usage and vitamin A for both calcium and protein assimilation. Bone growth and maintenance is severely impaired by a vitamin D deficiency. We can make our own vitamin D by bathing our skin in the sun for 10-15 minute every day. This is easy to do in the summer and in warm winter climates. In the winter and in overcast seasons, it is a crucial to supplement your vitamin D intake with natural food. Great sources of biologically available D are fish, eggs, organ meats and fish liver oils, especially cod liver oil.

The type of vitamin A we get from eating vegetables, like carrots, is water-soluble beta carotene. Retinol-vitamin A, found in pasture raised meat and dairy, has different biological activity. Both forms are important for health; beta carotene is a powerful anti-oxidant and retinol is crucial for healthy eyes, skin and bones. Fat soluble vitamin E also promotes bone health by protecting the bone-making process from damage by free radicals.

Silica, phosphorus and magnesium are bone healthy minerals that are deficient in a standard Western diet and plentiful in ancient and indigenous diets. Pasture grasses are packed with silica and phosphorus, both critical for bones, jaws and teeth development, and meat from pasture raised animals is a good source. Chocolate, my favorite food group, is very high in magnesium and phosphorus. You will want to eat chocolate in the rawest and richest form possible, freed from sugar, preservatives, and other unnecessary additives.

The Mouths of Babes

Breastfeeding is the best thing that you can do for your baby's health. It is the best means of providing the highest nutrition to a baby, and that is of prime importance in your baby’s facial and oral development. It is a perfect process; as the child grows, the substances in the breast milk actually change to meet the nutritional requirements of the child's changing needs. Dental issues, including decay, are never caused by breastfeeding.

The act of breastfeeding may also be formative in the proper development of the jaw. Each time we swallow, the tongue pushes upwards and flattens in the roof of the mouth. The force of this motion may shape the jaws. Breastfed babies are fed longer and more frequently, and thus, the baby does more swallowing. As the child grows, the top jaw forms around the shape of the tongue resulting in a broad facial structure with sufficient room to house evenly placed teeth.

Generally, newborns are born without teeth, yet their teeth are already forming, so mom's pre-natal and neonatal nutrition is key for tooth development. She needs to have plenty of the fat-soluble vitamins in her daily diet to pass on to her baby. Only a varied, wholesome and colorful diet can supply all of the nutrients needed for the complex process that build and maintains the integrity of our bones. While it is possible to meet the high nutrient requirements as a vegetarian or vegan, it is much simpler to do with fish, meat and dairy in the diet.

Vitamin K2 is as important as folic acid for pregnant women. Vitamin K2 and Vitamin D aid in the development of the bones, including facial form of the developing fetus. Eating 2 eggs from grass-fed chickens or a teaspoon or so of ghee (clarified butter) from pasture cows are delicious sources of both.

You can make sure that you meet the minerals needed for bone development by steeping horsetail, nettles and oatstraw in nearly boiling water. This makes an herbal tea that is full of silica and phosphorus. Add a few drops of ginger essential oil or dried, ground ginger to the tea to help settle morning sickness.

Watch Your Mouth

We are born obligate nose breathers. Over time, a variety of environmental conditions can influence us to breathe through our mouths, instead. A mouth that hangs open constantly to pull in air changes craniofacial development, especially in childhood. When children breathe through their mouths, the roof of the mouth assume take a deep and narrow shape, and the lower jaw may be pulled back and down producing malocclusion and a vertical growth pattern in the face. Also, when the mouth is open the tongue does not spend enough time in the roof of the mouth to mold a wide palate. The Buteyco Method is a simple breathing therapy method. If you or your children are nose breathers, this technique can retrain you to nose-breathe naturally.

Our facial bones and teeth are alive, and their health and positioning remain flexible throughout our lives. If you proceed with braces for yourself or your children, be sure to seek several opinions and carefully consider all of the options, including functional orthodontia. Ask the orthodontist how the braces and other treatments may impair or improve your facial aesthetics. Request before and after profile pictures of former clients so you can see the change for yourself. To find a functional orthodontist, contact The American Association of Functional Orthodontics or the International Association of Facial Growth Guidance Orthotropics.

We may be able to avoid braces and orthodontic treatment entirely if we give our bodies the nutrients needed to thrive, and we can help our children, and future our children, grow beautiful faces that will have plenty of space for a full set of evenly placed teeth. It is also important to rethink our definition of a perfect smile. Free yourself and your children from the cookie-cutter paradigm of beauty promoted by "beauty" magazines, and embrace the authentic beauty of your own smile and your children's smiles.


Nadine Artemis, the founder of Living Libations, is the author of Holistic Dental Care: The Complete Guide to Healthy Teeth and Gums, and Renegade Beauty: Reveal and Revive Your Natural Radiance, which was named one of “The Top 10 Books on Skin Care” by The Strategist of New York Magazine. She is a respected media guest and contributor, and her products have received rave reviews in the New York Times, LA Times, Elle, People, Vogue, and Hollywood Reporter. Described by Alanis Morissette as “a true-sense visionary,” Nadine crafts elegant formulations and healing creations from rare botanicals that have skin glowing around the world. Her concept of Renegade Beauty encourages effortlessness and inspires people to rethink conventional notions of beauty and wellness.

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