The experts at Neal's Yard Remedies on the food, herbs, essential oils and supplements that will look after your oral health in cold and flu season and beyond
Looking after the mouth and throat environment helps to strengthen immunity in this part of the body, prevent problems such as inflammation, and is essential for strong and healthy teeth and gums. A diet that is rich in essential nutrients can be supported with immune-strengthening and protective natural therapies to promote healthy bacteria in this important environment, and to boost tissue health, in turn helping to ensure the long-lasting health of the teeth and gums.
As well as ensuring you get the essential nutrients, diet can be tailored to provide more of the nutrients that are particularly beneficial for oral and throat health. Avoiding very acidic foods and foods with lingering smells also helps to keep the mouth and teeth healthy.
Studies show that getting sufficient restful sleep is one of the most important factors for good oral health, helping to reduce inflammation and lowering the risk of gum disease, as well as accelerating healing of problems such as painful mouth ulcers.
Foods that contain natural sources of melatonin, the hormone that is responsible for regulating our circadian rhythms, can help to promote sleep. Ensure that your diet contains regular servings of melatonin-rich foods such as tart cherries or cherry juice, tomatoes, chillies, white and black mustard seeds, fenugreek, corn, rice, sprouted seeds, and the grain lupin to aid regular and restful sleep. Including foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan in your evening meal can also help to promote sleep. Tryptophan boosts production of calming serotonin in the body and has a natural sedative effect. Sources of tryptophan include poultry, chickpeas, cottage cheese, and eggs.
Top tip: Add a spoonful of honey and the juice of half a lemon to 175ml (6fl oz) boiling water and sip to help ward off infection during the cold and flu season.
Live or fermented foods such as natural yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi, help to neutralize acidic conditions in the mouth and stop unhealthy bacteria forming damaging plaque. These probiotic foods also help balance the natural flora of the mouth to speed the healing of mouth ulcers and reduce the risk of reoccurrence.
Honey is a traditional and effective throat soother, which can be beneficial when cold and flu viruses are circulating. Honey coats the throat and has anti-inflammatory properties, soothing irritated mucous membranes. It is also antimicrobial, helping to prevent infection taking hold, and its many beneficial substances act as natural antibiotics. Blackcurrants also have soothing anti-inflammatory properties and the diluted syrup can be taken warm or cold if you feel the beginnings of a sore throat.
Top tip: Dilute blackcurrant syrup in a glass of water to fight off inflammation.
Another food, garlic, has the sulphur-containing compound allicin, which has antibacterial properties, plus garlic has other potent antibacterial substances. Including garlic regularly in meals and adding raw garlic to dressings can give a boost to immunity that can ward off the viruses that lead to a sore throat
Just as some foods can cause bad breath, certain foods have a freshening effect. Lemons and chlorophyll-rich foods such as parsley can help to neutralize undesirable odours. Also live foods such as yogurt introduce beneficial bacteria to combat the harmful bacteria that can lead to bad breath. Crunch fruit and vegetables, such as apples, celery, carrots, and cucumber between meals to stimulate saliva production, which helps to keep breath fresh.
Several nutrients are key to teeth and gum health. Calcium, found in dairy products and leafy greens, promotes tooth enamel remineralization and strong bones, ensuring a healthy jaw bone to hold teeth in place. Vitamin D, found in eggs and oily fish, is needed for the absorption of calcium, and phosphorous, found in cheese, nuts, pulses, and wholegrains, also aids calcium absorption. Vitamin C, found in citrus fruits, berries, peppers, and sweet potatoes, boosts immunity and promotes collagen synthesis to ensure strong connective tissue in the gums.
Antibacterial and antiviral herbs support oral health, while herbs that aid digestion can help prevent bad breath.
Herbs such as dandelion root and psyllium husks act as strengthening tonics for the digestive system, encouraging the transit of waste and promoting healthy liver function. By cleansing and supporting healthy digestive function, the herbs can in turn help to prevent digestive problems that can sometimes contribute to bad breath.
Top tip: Add 1–2 tsp dried dandelion root to 250ml (9fl oz) boiling water for a digestion- cleansing decoction.
Echinacea is a key herb for fighting infection and reducing inflammation in the body. When applied topically, echinacea can help to calm gum inflammation, in turn promoting strong gums that are able to do their job of holding and supporting the teeth.
Calendula can be beneficial for soothing the mucous membranes in the mouth and throat, helping to promote tissue health, and both calendula and eucalyptus make excellent mouth rinses that can be used regularly to promote oral hygiene and optimize the health of tissues in the mouth and throat.
Sage is a useful herb for reducing any inflammation in the tissues to promote healthy gums, and also has antibacterial properties that can fight the bacteria that lead to sore throats.
Herbs to support lymphatic health
Certain herbs support the lymphatic system – an essential part of the immune system, which helps the body to fight off invading germs – so improving the body’s resilience to debilitating conditions such as glandular fever, which can cause a sore throat among other symptoms. Cleavers, which is known as a common garden weed, also has a strong reputation for promoting lymphatic function and health.
Care needs to be taken when using essential oils around the mouth. However, applied topically in a very dilute form they can be effective. They can also be used in a gargle solution, but should not be swallowed.
Bright and fresh
Peppermint and spearmint are well known for freshening the breath and are included in most mouthwashes and toothpastes.
Lemon essential oil can also be used to promote fresh breath. Lemon has natural brightening properties, too, and can be added to a mouthwash to help teeth look clean and white.
Immune-boosting essential oils such as lavender or thyme can help to support immunity throughout the body, in turn supporting oral health. Oils can also be used locally to bolster immunity. For example, oils with antimicrobial properties such as tea tree, can be used in a gargle or soothing gum rub to help prevent and fight gingivitis – gum disease – and keep the gums in good condition.
Top tip: Add 4 drops peppermint essential oil to 10ml coconut oil. Mix with a little tepid water and wash the solution around the mouth for a few minutes. Spit the mouthwash out then rinse the mouth with water.
Oils to decongest and protect
A steam inhalation with eucalyptus essential oil makes an effective decongestant remedy for stubborn coughs that persist long after other cold symptoms have subsided. Ginger essential oil is also helpful for loosening mucus in the airways and making coughs more productive.
Lemon, as well as freshening breath, also has antibacterial properties that can help to prevent an infection from taking hold in the first place.
While mouth and throat conditions usually heal naturally within a week or so, supplements can help to top up nutrients where levels are low to boost immunity and lower the risk of recurrence.
Getting the basics
Taking a daily high-quality multi-vitamin will ensure that your body is receiving the full range of vital nutrients, which can be especially helpful if you have recurring infections.
If levels of the essential mineral zinc are low in the diet, this can lead to reduced immunity. If you have succumbed to an infection, or repeated infections, it can be worth getting your zinc levels checked and taking a supplement if your diet is failing to meet your requirements.
Taking zinc and vitamin C together – preferably in a lozenge form for a steady release of the nutrients – provides powerful immune support to help the body fight infections such as layrngitis and glandular fever.
Taking a probiotic supplement helps to populate the gut – and the length of the digestive tract from the throat to the intestines – with beneficial bacteria, keeping harmful bacteria such as Staphylococcus in check and promoting strong immunity.
Nutrients for gum health
A good-quality B complex supplement taken daily can support tissue health, making it harder for bacteria to take hold in the gums. Also, using mouthwashes fortified with folic acid can help to strengthen gums.
This is an extract from Neal's Yard Remedies Complete Wellness, published by DK, £25