Quite the dramatic headline, no? This is going to be a long discussion of dental and orthodontic health, but I think the subject matter won’t be quite as dull as it sounds. Let me start with some background.
I’ve never had braces. My teeth aren’t perfect, but they’ve never caused me much problem either. I’ve never had a cavity. The only mouth troubles I have are sensitive teeth and receding gums, the bulk of which happened in my early 20s and haven’t worsened.
But I come from a long line of teeth grinders. You can hear my dad grinding in his sleep from down the hall. This is not an exaggeration. My sister grinds. But me? I’m a clencher. I lock my teeth down and create a vacuum in there, especially when under stress.
So, in line with my yoga and mindfulness studies, I set out to fix myself of this little problem. Yoga teaches a technique to help relax the mouth that involves creating a space between the teeth and lips, and then putting the tip of your tongue right behind the front top teeth. The mouth is a common place that we hold tension, especially when we think we’re relaxed.
And lo and behold! It worked. For a while. At some point during those years, I began chewing only on one side. I’m not sure why, but I did. I always attributed it to the sensitivity, but now I’m not so sure.
Then I had my darling daughter 3 1/2 years ago and I couldn’t maintain the mindfulness required to keep up my non-clenching. Amidst the slosh of hormones and lack of sleep, the clenching came back full throttle. My jaw was exhausted and I was beginning to show some signs of Temperomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorder. So I went to the dentist.
And they gave me an ultra-sexy mouth guard. You know, one of those delicious acrylic-y things that are custom-molded to fit your mouth. Oh yeah. Between that and my fish oil balm for my face, my husband found me irresistible!
But then something funny happened. I just clenched on top of that thing. It didn’t help at all. But I believed it was preventing damage to my teeth from the clenching, so I kept wearing it. And for some reason that I couldn’t pin down, eating just got more difficult and more uncomfortable. I chewed on one side and it just felt like my teeth weren’t lining up properly.
And then I attended 2012’s Ancestral Health Symposium. I’ll admit it, I wasn’t expecting much from a talk titled “Craniofacial Dystrophy—Modern Melting Faces”, but what the heck? And this is a good example of how attending an event like this can completely change your life. It’s worth the 25 minutes of your time, I promise.
TEETH TOGETHER. LIPS TOGETHER. TONGUE ON THE ROOF OF YOUR MOUTH. Could it really be so simple? I quit wearing my mouth guard that very night and I’ve never looked back. “Teeth together. Lips together. Tongue on the roof of the mouth,” has become my mantra. I do this while driving, while typing, and even while sleeping, where I hook my jaw over the edge of my foam ergonomic pillow to keep my mouth together.
At first, it was difficult to get my teeth to even want to connect with each other. But with diligence and practice, they started to become reacquainted with each other. My jaw, on the right side, still pops from a ligament or some sort of connective tissue that isn’t used to the new arrangement yet, but it doesn’t hurt, and during the times I’m especially good about my exercises it happens less. So I suspect that someday it will be less of an issue or disappear completely.
It took me a while to figure out why my jaw had gotten so far off track. Then—BINGO! Another strike against yoga for me. Here’s my jaw when it’s together, as the exercise dictates:
And here’s me when I’m employing yoga technique:
You can see my facial muscles are much more slack, my jawline looks softer (not desirable as I age…), my cheekbones are less apparent, and I look like a bit of a mouth-breather. What is harder to see is that in the bottom photo, my lower jaw is actually sliding down and forward. My lower teeth start to jut out further than my top teeth. The whole posture pulls my tongue forward, causing—you guessed it—the tongue thrusting that was causing so many problems.
Sure, sure. There are aesthetic reasons for this sort of treatment. For whatever evolutionarily built-in reasons, there appear to be universally accepted traits of attractiveness, and a strong jaw, facial symmetry, and high cheekbones help serve that purpose. This is a controversial area of research, and it can infect people with a judgmental outlook on humanity or even slide into eugenics at its worst. But we shouldn’t be too quick to throw out attractiveness as a mere cultural phenomenon, since many of the traits that occur in the face are physical markers of a much deeper health issue, and thus, subject to sexual selection (read: how successful you will be in luring people to where all the magic happens). As Mew mentions in his talk, there are other implications to craniofacial dystrophy such as ear, nose, and throat complications, sleep apnea, and TMJ.
What was surprising for me about Mike Mew’s presentation were the before and afters. Granted, he works with children whose bones and muscles are more malleable than us poor adults, but that doesn’t mean we’re a lost cause. As he mentions, he’s spent the past seven years reshaping his face too. When I took undergrad anthropology courses, I learned about skull shapes throughout primate evolution. Some, like Paranthropus boisei, had massive molars twice the size of modern-day humans’ and a sagittal crest for large chewing muscle attachment. Some theorize these characteristics were due to a diet of tough nuts, seeds, and fruits, though this may be up for debate after looking at dentition wear patterns. The point being that it seems like it might take millions of years for these sort of adaptations, but in modern-day humans, changes can happen in a generation or two. And when looking at the before/after pictures, it’s hard to argue that progress can’t be made in one lifetime.
What’s really crazy is that I expected the exercise to INCREASE my clenching, and that hasn’t happened. It’s actually reduced it. How is that possible? I’m no scientist, but Mew talks about how these days our food is all soft and mushy. Americans consume an insane amount of liquid that isn’t water—juice, smoothies, sodas. We love things like mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese, dishes that require very little chewing effort. Much of what we do in the kitchen and to our food supply is in the service of making it easy to break food down or provide us with the nutrients for less effort. We breed produce to be more palatable (apples are sweeter and less fibrous these days, for example) and meat animals to be more tender (it shouldn’t be so easy to cut meat with the edge of a fork). We buy all sorts of kitchen gadgets to chop, tenderize, purée, and mix. Our jaws are simply not getting the exercise they’re used to.
Therefore, I propose that my tongue thrusting and aggressive clenching was an adaptation or response to the new jaw posturing, and that maintaining good jaw, teeth, and tongue posture tells my brain that all is well. There is information being sent along nervous system channels to properly align everything, which tells everything else to get in line and function properly. For example, my husband tells me that our teeth relate to each other and that when one falls out, others above or around it may fall out too. Everyday, we send signals to ourselves and we reap the repercussions, both good and bad. But there are absolutely signals we have control over, and it’s important to empower ourselves with that message. If you’re suffering from something health related, it really pays to do your research. Once you’re into this whole ancestral health business, seek out doctors and practitioners (also here) that understand evolution and apply those principles to their practice.
Some of you out there may have children staring down the barrel of orthodontic interventions. I can’t recommend finding an orthotropic practitioner enough. Many conventional treatments are short-sighted and don’t address the underlying cause, and can cause problems of their own. For example, removing teeth to make room to straighten the other teeth can lead to disruption in facial shape. This seems especially crazy when you consider that Weston A. Price saw plenty of folks with straight, perfect teeth who had their wisdom teeth in AND still had room in the back. Many people get into orthotropic treatment to straighten teeth, but they end up having all sorts of nagging problems resolved like neck pain, headaches, and sinus problems. I’m finding it difficult to find a comprehensive list of practitioners, but found this one. For my part, it looks like I have a few options in the region for my daughter, but most will require a several hours drive. I think it’s worth it. I have no knowledge about this particular guy or his worthiness as a physician, but he has a very informational website if you’d like to learn more. And he invokes Weston A. Price, so he can’t be all bad.
If we’ve learned anything from our dietary adventures in Paleo, it’s that conventional wisdom can often be harmful, conventional treatments can mask or make symptoms worse, and sometimes the answers are more elegantly simple than they’re made out to be. It appears to be the case with orthodontics and facial development too.
So what can you do in the meantime? If you have breathing problems that force you to breathe through your mouth, TMJ disorder, or sleep apnea, work with a healthcare professional to resolve those. Eat tougher, more challenging foods like raw veggies (carrots and celery for example), jerky, and nuts.
And. TEETH TOGETHER. LIPS TOGETHER. TONGUE ON THE ROOF OF YOUR MOUTH.