Toothbrushes or Chewing Sticks, Which Is Right For You?

Image of Chewing Stick For Dental Care

Chewing Stick For Dental Care
Image Courtesy of

Image of Three Western Style Toothbrushes

Three Western Style Toothbrushes
Courtesy of

The answer is, it depends. Being practical it might be a little difficult to run down to the local drug store and pick up a dozen chewing sticks. In the U.S. we typically have an abundance of tooth- brushes to pick from with different colors and bristle configurations and degrees of softness and polishing of bristle tips. It’s’ almost mind-boggling.

If you are able to obtain a toothbrush, use a toothbrush. If an alternative is the only thing available use it instead. The results may surprise you.

So how did something called a chewing stick come into use? It’s the result of oral traditions of Ayurvedic medicine.

Ayurveda is a traditional medicine practiced in India with roots that go back anywhere from 3000 to 5000 years ago. It’s a form of ancient traditional medicine that has its origin during the Vedic period in India. That is the era which saw the development of iron axes and plows.

As exemplified in the 1992 movie Medicine Man (staring Sean Connery) researchers and explorers from our pharmaceutical industry often focus on traditional medicines and remedies in their search for a potentially profitable discovery.

In various cultures, there are often traditions that certain herbal and plant remedies can be used to cure infections, deformities and other physical ailments. The tribal medicine man or healer learned these from his or her elders. He used and modified the list of remedies and handed down the best to the next generation of healers.

Are traditional remedies really effective in treating various problems? Who’s to say? Validation of effectiveness is the standard. Until samples of particular herbs or plants are brought back into a pharmaceutical laboratory for testing and evaluation for potential health benefits we do not know for sure. This is the expensive research branch of the industry.

Let’s assume the goal of any pharmaceutical company is to discover the active herbal ingredient(s), isolate or synthesize it for further testing and evaluate whether there is a potential drug that could be manufactured and sold for profit. Is that bad?

Therein lies the key. Can it be produced at a profit? Profit is not necessarily a bad thing since it drives our world to discover and distribute an amazing variety of products. Profit is necessary to recover the costs of research. No profit incentive, fewer discoveries make it to market. But I digress.

So is there something in chewing sticks that could be proven to be beneficial for dental care? Or is the rough surface of a chewed stick just a convenient substitute for a Western toothbrush? Let’s look a little further into what may be called complementary or alternative medicine.

Complementary or alternative medicine is often viewed with skepticism. It is interesting since each of us, in our own country, will have our own traditional medicine with anything else being considered complementary or alternative. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) often views European medical treatments with skepticism for years until they are satisfied with testing and trials.

So when a particular herbal or plant derived traditional medicine treatment is brought to more developed countries, it is no surprise they are classified as complementary or alternative medicine. Often because it has not been thoroughly evaluated for safety.

So what benefits could possibly be derived from the use of chewing sticks? The fact that they are not considered a drug gets them through with little governmental restriction.

At UCLA dental school we learned of the use of chewing sticks that were effective in dental care in various Asian and African nations. In India, a variety of types of chewing sticks are available, with specific recommendations being made by traditional practitioners.

They would use their unique diagnostic criteria to select the one best for you. One could make the comparison that use of the chewing stick is just the equivalent of the toothbrush in Western nations. Close, but not quite the same. They are used differently.

Chewing sticks are usually harvested fresh from specific plants using a branch about the size of the diameter of your little finger. One cut end is softened by chewing, breaking down the stick end into its component fibers.

The natural brush like end may then be rubbed against the teeth, with the natural fibers dislodging food debris and bacteria colonies. This is where the similarity to the Western toothbrush drops off.

Generally, the chewing stick is gradually chewed and slowly eaten. It is not surprising that using chewing sticks may flatten the cusps or points of the teeth, over time, which decreases chewing efficiency.

One particular type of chewing stick the neem or margosa (Azadiraxhta indica) is quite notable. Extracts of this particular plant contain what is known as neem or neem oil and are used in many cosmetics in the Western world.

Neem has been compared with Ayurvedic tooth powders and even standard brand toothpastes for it’s anti-plaque (anti-bacterial) effectiveness. Neem came out on top, in Indian tests.

It’s doubtful that neem will be incorporated into any major brand toothpastes soon, but only time will tell.

Another beneficial tree for chewing stick consideration is the arak or peel tree (Salvadora percia).  Another study tested the anti-bacterial effects of this plant used as a chewing stick on Streptococcus mutans, and lactobacilli.

Streptococcus mutans was immediately affected by the use of the chewing stick but lactobacilli was not. Streptococcus mutans is one of the chief bacteria responsible for causing tooth decay.

So, it is possible to bring traditional medicine remedies in one region of the world, that are initially classified as alternative, through the evaluation process so that they are finally accepted into mainstream medicine.  It takes time, money, and persistence.  If there is sufficient profit incentive, we can all benefit. Otherwise it may just be the few who are willing to search out these secrets.

In my opinion, if there is a sizable profit to be made, the pharmaceutical industry will jump at the chance. The lower the profit potential, the greater the chances are that a good idea or remedy may be bypassed, even though it has healing potential.