Recently, while visiting with some of my naturopathic medical school classmates, my friend told us an interesting story. She had a patient who suffered with asthma for 35 years. The asthma had come on suddenly and was worsening despite all treatments, both medical and naturopathic. She asked herself what had changed 35 years ago. In her frustration she searched her memory for what behaviors she might have begun 35 years ago. The answer was her brand of toothpaste, and she had continued to use that same brand for 35 years. She changed her toothpaste and her asthma quickly disappeared.
I have seen a change in toothpaste improve rashes around the mouth. The sodium lauryl sulfate can aggravate canker sores and mouth ulcers. The chemicals and flavorings can aggravate gastric reflux and heart burn, particularly at night. I have seen animals develop diarrhea from pet toothpaste. This was the first time I have ever heard of the chemicals in toothpaste contributing to asthma. But an internet search yielded an interesting array of toothpaste asthmatic experiences.
In 1990, the New England Journal of Medicine described a 21year old woman who would wheeze and cough at night, after brushing her teeth. It turned out that the artificial mint flavoring in her opaque tartar toothpaste was triggering the reactions. On switching to a gel, the wheezing resolved.
Much asthma is triggered by allergic stimuli such as chemicals in our environment, in our foods and in the substances we put in and on our bodies. Even the dyes used in the colorings of common drugs such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen can trigger asthma in some people. Sulfites in wines and salad bars (on lettuce to keep it green) can trigger asthma. Modern toothpastes have come a long way from the formulas suggested in ancient Egyptian writings. They really do help clean, strengthen, shine, protect, whiten and desensitize our teeth. But there are many chemicals involved, some of which may trigger pathological reactions.
Here’s the strangest thing that came up in my search. There are numerous anecdotal reports of people whose asthma improved when they switched to toothpaste for sensitive teeth containing potassium nitrate. Potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter, is a component of gunpowder. It liberates potassium ions which depolarize nerve endings in the pores of exposed dentin, and prevents nerve transmission of pain in the teeth. English medical journals from the early 1900’s list potassium nitrate as a treatment for asthma. I am not using toothpaste as my main treatment for asthma right now, just pointing out that the ingredients in toothpaste are potent and can have significant effects beyond the teeth.
Commercial toothpastes contain a wide variety of chemicals which can contribute to some health concerns. This is particularly true for sensitive individuals, as well as for children, because they tend to eat more toothpaste than adults. Of course, there is the ongoing controversy surrounding fluoride in toothpaste and in drinking water, which is too big a topic to include in this email. But certainly, be aware that if you suffer skin, oral, digestive and/or allergic problems, it’s probably best to use simple, non-toxic toothpastes or powders. These are easily available in stores and you can even make simple tooth cleansers such as the examples below.
This intruiging research is courtesy of Dr. Jody Shevens, a friend and colleague in Boulder, CO.