In 2016, Leigh Skinner Anderson felt like her health was sliding down a hill. She had spent a decade on low-dose antibiotics followed by hormonal fertility treatments and later was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s disease. She suffered from low energy and hair loss. “I was having trouble regaining my footing,” says Anderson, a 50-year-old interior designer in Glenview.
Anderson visited numerous specialists for her thyroid, but they were curious about something else. “They all asked me about root canals,” she says.
Seeking relief, Anderson booked an appointment with Lina Garcia, DDS, DMD, a holistic dentist in South Barrington. She’d heard that a holistic dentist might be able to fix her problems without unnecessary added procedures or antibiotics.
Getting to the root
During root canal treatment, an endodontist removes diseased pulp and cleans and disinfects the root canals. Some holistic practitioners say that root canal procedures remove a tooth’s root but leave dead tissue, which can attract bacteria that damages other parts of the body — including the thyroid. However, the American Association of Endodontists says this claim is from a long-debunked study and “there is no valid, scientific evidence linking root canal treatment to disease elsewhere in the body.”
Garcia removed Anderson’s tooth that had the root canal as well as one amalgam filling. Instead of administering antibiotics, Garcia used ozone gas to kill bacteria, and she used anesthetic without epinephrine for pain. She also replaced a metal crown with one made of inert material.
After her treatment, Anderson was a believer in holistic dentistry. Not only was she happy with her procedure, she was also impressed with the results. “As my dental work healed, I had a boost in energy, metabolism [and] enthusiasm for life.”
Reducing use of drugs
Holistic dentists generally have a few common traits, including an approach to oral health that takes the whole body into consideration and a cautious approach to certain drugs and materials. But the term can be a bit of a catchall, says Lynn Lipskis, DDS, a holistic dentist in St. Charles who treats patients with temporomandibular joint (TMJ) and sleep breathing disorders.
Lipskis rarely refers patients for surgery or writes them prescriptions for painkillers. Instead, she addresses her patients’ craniofacial pain or sleep apnea by addressing dietary issues and lifestyle changes and by working with a chiropractic physician on staff.
“If I can demonstrate that we can [fix their problems] without pain medication, they’re pretty much on board right away,” Lipskis says. To relieve any physical discomfort, she uses a biostimulation laser, a handheld low-level laser that stimulates a reaction in oral tissue that she says leads to faster healing and reduced pain.
Garcia has a similar approach. “I work with an osteopath [and] a nutritionist. We are not doing antibiotics, steroids or pain medications — not because we’re not fulfilling patients’ needs, but because we know that patients can heal without compromising their immune system,” she says.
Making sense of controversy
Holistic dentistry is not without its controversy. Take the use of fluoride, for example.
Garcia, who avoids fluoridated water, recommends her patients cease using fluoride toothpaste. “[High levels of] fluoride are well known for neurotoxicity,” she says. “Even if fluoride made some good sense for people, it still would not be appropriate for it to be in city water” and should be prescribed on an as-needed basis, she says.
Lipskis does not take the same stance. “I prefer to stay neutral,” she says of fluoride use, acknowledging that it’s a hot button issue, as fluoride has dental benefits. “Early in my career, I worked in an unfluoridated area and saw the devastation on children’s teeth.”
Ogbonna Bowden, DDS, a dentist at Woodlawn Dental Gallery in Chicago, says he has seen children with significant tooth decay because their parents didn’t believe in fluoride. “The American Dental Association’s stance is that fluoride is safe,” he says. “There is no research to show it causes cancer or autism or any of those things, but there is research to show it prevents decay.”
Bowden points out that tooth decay is the most common chronic disease in children. “We should do everything we can that doesn’t harm the body to prevent this catastrophic disease,” he says.
Then there are amalgam fillings — a mixture of elemental mercury and other metals — which Garcia recommends removing and replacing. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says these fillings only have low levels of mercury vapor and are safe for ages 6 and up.
Bowden is skeptical of removing amalgam fillings as a standard practice unless a filling is broken down or otherwise compromised. “In the mouth, it’s stable. You expose [patients] to more mercury vapors by removing them,” he says.
Treating the whole patient
There is one area where Bowden is aligned with holistic dentists: the idea that oral health is part of a patient’s overall well-being.
“The bad bacteria you find in gum disease shows correlations for risk of stroke and hypertension. We [also] understand that oral health is definitely correlated with depression and mental health issues,” he says.
While Garcia believes all dental patients should be knowledgeable about both mainstream and alternative treatments, she agrees that her brand of practice isn’t for everyone.
“You can’t accept everything just because it claims to be holistic,” she says. “[And] just because something is holistic doesn’t mean that it fits everybody.”
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.