Can You Reverse A Cavity By Changing Your Diet?

Sleep Medicine Dentist By Mark Burhenne, DDS
Sleep Medicine Dentist
Mark Burhenne, DDS is a practicing sleep medicine dentist based in California.
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Image by Sophia Hsin / Stocksy

Is there such thing as a diet that reverses cavities? After reading that question, you're probably thinking one of two things: Either you didn't realize it was even possible to reverse cavities, or you may not know that food was one of the key elements.

But the answer to this question is yes, by changing your diet you will be able to reverse some cavities. As you already know, certain foods you eat create a perfect breeding ground for cavities to form. On the other hand, there are foods that bad oral bacteria hate, which = fewer cavities.

Here's how all this happens and what to eat (and not to eat!) to get rid of your cavities.

How foods cause (and reverse) cavities.

The first thing to know about preventing and treating cavities is that the health of your teeth isn't static. In fact, they are constantly being remineralized and demineralized. Remineralization happens when your teeth take up minerals and nutrients from the outside to keep their structure strong. Demineralization, as you might have guessed, is somewhat the opposite. As teeth are demineralized, they're exposed to "acid attacks" from bacteria that feed off certain foods and then excrete waste in the form of acid.

Sound gross? It sort of is! These acid attacks happen when bacteria essentially poop on your teeth—and the mess isn't cleaned up quickly. As acid is allowed to remain on certain areas of your tooth enamel, it begins to eat away at the tooth structure and cause tooth decay. As a general rule, tooth decay happens when demineralization happens more than remineralization.

So what can you do about this? Like most things in life, the key here is balance. Your oral microbiome needs a healthy balance of good and bad bacteria. That's the way you're built—which is why knocking out all the bacteria in your mouth with, say, conventional mouthwash, isn't good for your oral health.

It's also great to practice good oral hygiene, like brushing two to three times a day, flossing, and using mouth tape. These habits are all designed to support remineralization. But if you're eating a lot of cavity-promoting foods and not much else, all the brushing in the world probably won't stop cavities from forming.

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What to do if you already have a cavity.

Not every cavity can be reversed by your diet, but many can. If a cavity is already causing you pain and/or has broken through the dentin layer, you'll need to see a dentist. For cavities that are small and haven't broken through the outside of the tooth, however, diet might be the key to healing the tooth decay and avoiding costly dental work.

How do you know if you have a small cavity? Since they're typically not causing symptoms that would bother you, you'll need to rely on your six-month dental cleanings and checkups to know if new cavities have formed. Your dentist should be able to find them on an x-ray or by a physical examination and let you how big they are. Some cavities have progressed past the point where it's possible to heal them, so make sure you consult your dentist on whether your cavity is at an early enough stage to be healed with diet.

Eat these foods to heal your cavities.

If your cavity is small enough to try dietary interventions—or you just want to adjust your diet to prevent cavities in the first place—here's a breakdown of the kinds of foods that support remineralization. (Hint: They're mostly foods you'll find on a paleo diet, with the addition of some high-quality cheeses and legumes.)

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1. Calcium-rich foods

Although many people think about milk when they read the word "calcium," there are plenty of dairy-free calcium-rich foods. Your teeth and bones absorb calcium from the inside, and calcium encourages saliva production, which serves as a buffer between your teeth and the bacteria in your mouth.

Some of the best calcium-rich foods for teeth are:

  • Salmon
  • Almonds
  • Rhubarb
  • Sesame seeds
  • Collard greens
  • Spinach
  • Chia seeds
  • Poppy seeds
  • Tofu (this is a soy product, so I wouldn't eat too much to avoid hormone disruption)
  • Amaranth
  • Lentils and beans
  • Sardines
  • Kale
  • Figs
  • Raw milk

2. Vitamin K foods

Modern diets have all but depleted this important vitamin from our refrigerators. In 2007, researchers published evidence that the majority of healthy people are actually deficient in vitamin K2. Unlike many vitamin deficiencies, a lack of K2 takes years to contribute to health problems. But when it does, it looks like heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, and many other chronic health issues.

That's partly because vitamin K2 is often the missing link in the process by which your body digests and distributes calcium. You need plenty of calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D in your diet to complete the process. When you have all of these nutrients on a regular basis, your teeth (and bones) will be very happy about it since they'll be remineralized regularly.

Here are some of the best vitamin K2 foods, with the highest concentrations listed first:

  • Natto (this is the only vegan vitamin K2 food, but it's also got more K2 than any other food)
  • Goose liver paté
  • Hard and soft grass-fed cheeses
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Chicken liver
  • Goose leg
  • Egg yolk
  • Butter

When it comes to animal products high in K2, make sure you always go with grass-fed. The chlorophyll in grass activates an enzyme that converts vitamin K1 into K2.

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3. Vitamin D foods

Vitamin D is crucial for getting calcium into your teeth and bones, and it also controls how much phosphorus—one of the minerals teeth need to stay strong—your teeth absorb. According to some estimates, 75 to 90 percent of people are considered vitamin-D-deficient. You'll absorb the most by standing in the sun at least 30 minutes per day, but eating these foods regularly will help keep your vitamin D levels up:

  • Mushrooms
  • Egg yolks
  • Beef liver
  • Shrimp
  • Oysters
  • Cod liver oil
  • Fatty fish

4. Mineral-rich foods

I've already mentioned calcium, but magnesium and phosphorus are other minerals that you need in your diet for cavity-free teeth. You can get them from foods like:

  • Dark chocolate
  • Avocados
  • Legumes
  • Chicken
  • Leafy greens (collard/spinach/mustard greens, spinach, and kale)
  • Turkey
  • Grass-fed cheeses
  • Quinoa
  • Amaranth
  • Sprouted grains
  • Seeds (chia, flax, etc.)
  • Offal (organ meats, like cow brain and chicken liver)
  • Nuts
  • Fatty fish

There are also significant portions of these minerals in whole grains, but I'll explain below why I would avoid them to reverse your cavities.

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Avoid these foods if you want to reverse cavities.

You might already know that sugary foods are cavity-causers, but what about other foods that turn to sugar as soon as you eat them? Because people don't always associate wheat-based and starchy foods with creating cavities, I consider them potentially more of a problem for teeth. You might remember to brush your teeth after a slice of cake, but do you think about it when you eat a package of crackers?

Sugars from many foods break down into foods that bacteria in your mouth just can't resist. When you know you've got some tooth decay and want to reverse it, stay away from these foods:

  • Sweets (cake, candies, pastries, etc.)
  • Pasta
  • Corn
  • Bread products
  • Rice
  • Processed foods (hot dogs, packaged lunch meats, highly processed packaged foods, etc.)
  • White potatoes
  • Crackers

Remember, not every cavity can be reversed. I've been a dentist for over 30 years, and sometimes you just can't predict how it'll go. I'd say that over half my patients on this nutritional plan have been able to reverse existing cavities, but not every time. This is a complex process and is often more of an art form since an individual's genetics, age, medical history, and other habits also affect cavities.

This is why above all else I'm pushing for prevention with my patients. Every time I can save a tooth instead of filling it, I consider that a victory. Try adjusting your diet to reverse your cavities and pair it with other good dental hygiene habits, and you may very well be on your way to saving a tooth—and maybe some money on the way.

Ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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