How Could They Know? The Case of Healthy Gums

During my last dental exam, a month ago, I was told my gums were in excellent shape. Clearly better than my previous visit. The obvious difference between the two visits is that I now eat lots of fermented food. At the previous visit, my gums were in better shape than a few years ago. They suddenly improved when I started drinking a few tablespoons of flaxseed oil every day. Tyler Cowen is the poster child for that effect. After a lifetime of being told to brush and floss more — which I did, and which helped a little but not a lot — it now turns out, at least for me, that the secret of healthy gums is: 1. Eat fermented foods. 2. Consume omega-3. These two guidelines are not only a lot easier than frequent brushing and flossing but have a lot of other benefits, unlike brushing and flossing.

Dentistry is ancient and there are millions of dentists, but apparently the profession has never figured this out. This isn’t surprising — how could they figure it out? — but it is an example of a general truth about how things get better. (Or why they don’t get better — if only dentists and dental-school professors are allowed to do dental research.) In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs makes this point. For a long time, Jacobs says, farming was a low-yield profession. Then crop rotation schemes, tractors, cheap fertilizer, high-yield seeds, and dozens of other labor-saving yield-increasing inventions came along. Farmers didn’t invent tractors. They didn’t invent any of the improvements. They were busy farming. Just as dentists are busy doing dentistry and dental-school professors are busy studying conventional ways of improving gum health.

Jacobs also writes about the sterility of large organizations — their inability to come up with new goods and services. On the face of it, large organizations, such as large companies, are powerful. Yes, they can be efficient but they can’t be creative, due to what Jacobs calls “the infertility of captive divisions of labor.” In a large organization, you get paid for doing X. You can’t start doing X+Y, where Y is helpful to another part of the company, because you don’t get paid for doing Y. A nutrition professor might become aware of the anti-inflammatory effects of flaxseed oil but wouldn’t study its effects on gum health. That’s not what nutrition professors do. So neither dentists nor dental-school professors nor nutrition professors could discover the effects I discovered. They were trapped by organizational lines, by divisions of labor, that I was free of.

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15 Replies to “How Could They Know? The Case of Healthy Gums”

  1. Wouldn’t this argument suggest that people using mouthwash would experience poorer gum health? An alcohol mouthwash “sterilizes” the bacterial plaque.

  2. I know skepticism can be too easy, but isn’t it possible that the fermented food replaced something else in your diet that happened to be bad for your gums?

  3. Eric, I think my gums were red due to immune system overreaction. Because of too little bacteria everywhere in my body, not just my mouth.

    Nansen, the fermented food didn’t replace anything except the use of spices. Eating 300 calories of fermented food probably made me eat 300 calories less overall, but no foods were eliminated, I just ate less of everything else.

  4. My bet is on omega-3. Or simply fat in general.

    I too had a Tyler Cowen-esque experience after eating Paleo/Hyperlipid. Many others in the Paleo community report the same. My “fermented food” consumption has stayed the same pre-Paleo and presently – almost indistinguishable from zero.

  5. Eric,

    I had the same thought, so I stopped using mouthwash now that I’ve moved closer to the paleo diet. I still eat some grains, but try to avoid wheat and whole grains if they haven’t been sprouted or fermented. I also eat chocolate and ice cream a little bit and drink coffee every day, and wine or beer with my dinner. But I try to end my lunch and dinner with raw cheese because cheese has been shown to be beneficial to the enamel. I’ll see at my next dentist visit in September whether I did the right thing.

  6. @Patrick

    Thanks for the link. I recently bought some excellent raw cheese and grassfed butter from a vendor at my local farmer’s market (Culver City, CA). It’s operated by a funny French guy wearing an Australian bush huntsman’s hat (he looks a bit like Crocodile Dundee). The butter is the best I’ve ever had and it comes from New Zealand. It is so yellow (I assume due to its high vitamin content) and creamy. I sometimes place a small sample in my mouth and take great pleasure in how it slowly melts, releasing rich flavors. It’s as good as any fine, soft cheese.

  7. Sorry, but you and your reference are wrong about farmers inventing tractors. I grew up on a dryland wheat farm. Innovation was a part of daily life. Dad and Uncles were always looking for a better way to do things. A friend of Dad’s, needing a bigger tractor, took the front wheels off two tractors, hooked the front of one to the reinforced hitch of the other, making a pivot point. He used the hydraulics of the front one to steer, and linked the throttles together.

    Friends asked him to build one for them, so he built a jig.

    On the farm, we were always fixing things, trying new ways. Technology was a significant part of daily life.

    “Busy Farming” means fixing things, making them better.

    I would be willing to bet that the actual inventors of tractors grew up on farms.

    To say “They didn’t invent any of the improvements” is just flat wrong.

  8. wgi, thanks for your comment but I fear you are missing the point.  I agree, someone close to farming realized that farmers could benefit from tractors. Yes, farmers made small improvements in farming. Jane Jacobs’s point was that the really big improvements, such as tractors, never began with farmers. To invent tractors you had to invent engines, and tires, and so on…farmers never did that. A farmer might have taken the last tiny step but couldn’t have taken that step without a vast amount of invention by non-farmers.

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  10. Seth
    I discovered the connection between gum disease (similar to yours it seems) and nutrition but my conclusions are different. Following my GP’s advice I moved my USDA diet to one with less meat, more legumes etc and suffered a marked worsening of gums plus other aging bio-markers which I did not recognize at the time. So I moved gradually in the opposite direction, eliminated all grains & legumes and now (1 year on) about 75% of energy comes form fats. For reasons I will not go into, I believe root of the problem was inflammation of the gut and consequent inflammation of connective tissues (gums, joints). My caloric intake has slowly increased by almost 50% while maintaing a BMI of 23. This makes no sence from the conventional understanding of metabolism but I trust my observations (many improvements) over theory. It is possible that my experience is a transient phenomenon, but time will tell and so far it’s holding.

  11. Morris, that’s a fascinating and revealing story. Thanks for your comment. Perhaps your gums and other things have gotten better because you have reduced pro-inflammatory molecules (such as omega-6) in your food. Omega-3 is anti-inflammatory. Grains have much more omega-6 than other foods. I don’t think gut inflammation causes inflammation elsewhere but it is an indication of too much pro-inflammatory signalling and/or too-little anti-inflammatory signalling in the whole body– in other words, it is a sign of a whole system out of balance.

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