Editor's note: Originally posted in 2016; updated August 2022
Interest in natural, organic, and green products is growing in many industries, including dentistry, and alternative health is a booming business.1 Having once been a vegetarian (who still thinks like a "granola girl"), I am curious about natural remedies. What did people in earlier times use to relieve dental pain? What merits do herbs have in relieving or treating oral conditions? What natural remedies are still used?
I began my education in ancient healing secrets when I had the great fortune of discovering Dian Dincin Buchman, an author who has written extensively on historical medicinal practices.2 Through Buchman's and others' research, I learned of some amazing natural remedies, many of which are still used today.
Honey: One of the most common natural remedies used today is pure honey, which lasts indefinitely. The inherent peroxide in honey makes it one of the best antibacterial and antiviral natural products.3 Honey helps heal wounds, both inside and outside of the mouth, and it can act as a barrier, contributing to the prevention of infection and keeping wounds moist while healing. As early as 1201, there are records of honey being traded in Riga, Latvia, and used for healing.2 Today, the use of honey as a salve helps heal canker sores or minor gum and tongue sores.4
Coneflower: We took several hundred years to catch up and truly appreciate the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), one of Native Americans' most useful antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal herbs.5,10 But within the last 15 years, the coneflower has been sold as an immune-system stimulant-Echinacea-to help fight the common cold and flu. Echinacea is available in a tincture, tablet, or capsule in health-food stores. To use the tincture, add 10 to 16 drops to a glass of water and sip about a quarter of the cup to help the immune system fight off whatever germs are causing the sore throat. Gargle with the rest and spit it out.
Myrrh: Other antiseptic properties are found in oleoresin myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), which was used for healing the mouth by ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Arab, and African people.2 Available as a tincture in health-food stores, myrrh dissolves easily. Add a few drops to water and apply to the wound with a cotton swab.
Myrrh's astringent properties help with inflammation, and a rinse can offer the added benefit of reducing bacteria.6 Simmer one teaspoon of powdered myrrh in two cups of water and rinse five or six times a day with the solution. Precaution should be taken since myrrh can be toxic if used long-term, and it should not be used by anyone with kidney disease.2
A throbbing, searing toothache has to be one of life's worst nightmares. Throughout history, cultures have recognized plants and gums that help with healing and reduce swelling. Local plants were recognized for their medicinal properties and, as an example, nomadic Arab tribes knew of 17 plants to heal toothaches.2
Thyme: The proliferation of thyme in my garden has made me curious about its medicinal properties. Ancient Romans and Greeks used it topically to relieve aches, pains, and sprains.2 Oil of thyme, available at health-food stores, causes blood to rise to the surface of the skin and can be applied to toothaches.7
Garlic: Garlic paste has been used for centuries for throbbing toothaches.8 You can either mash a clove of garlic and add a pinch of salt before applying to the throbbing area or chew a clove two or three times a day. Some claim that, after the initial application, the user grows accustomed to the pungent smell of garlic.
Clove: Oil of clove has antibacterial properties and is also a folk remedy for toothaches.8 Eugenol, an extract from the clove bud, is a natural analgesic, and after its initial sting, users claim relief from pain.9 Originating in Indonesia, the clove plant was brought to Africa centuries ago. In Africa, tribes such as the Bemba and the Zula scratch the dried flower buds.2 The result is a volatile oil that can be placed directly on the toothache.
Sage: Another temporary remedy for toothaches has its origins in Bologna, Italy.2 A tea made from two tablespoons of dried or fresh sage is said to provide relief with swishing.6 The bagged sage can also be placed on the cheek over the aching area.
A paper bag, vinegar, and pepper-An interesting old-time country cure sees people soaking a small piece of a brown paper bag in vinegar.2 After this has drained, sprinkle one side of the paper with pepper and apply it externally to the affected area. The warm sensation will offer some temporary relief from even the most painful acute flare-up.2
Ginger: Ancient Hawaiian folk medicine recognized that gingerroot had many healing properties.11 After 15 years of herbal-remedy apprenticeship, the capable healer would shape roasted gingerroot to cover a tooth. Biting on this for a period of time is said to generate saliva, marinating the sore tooth and leading to relief.2
Chamomile tea: Chamomile tea was often used as a healing poultice for toothache pain.12 Place the teabag in boiling water, and then remove it, placing it on the sore tooth or on the outside of the cheek near the sore tooth. Repeat as necessary
Anise seeds: Anise seeds were used in multiple ways by the Egyptians.2 They chewed anise seeds to help alleviate toothaches and drank anise tea for improved digestion, coughs, and to ease headaches.2 The first-century physician Dioscorides recommended bruising a handful of anise seeds and steeping them for 10 minutes in boiling water.2 A healthful tea is drinkable after the seeds have been strained.
Marjoram: Marjoram, a spice used widely in Italian cooking, was also used to soothe toothaches.13 As early as 372-287 BC, Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle, wrote that the Egyptians had been using marjoram to soothe toothaches for hundreds of years. Today, its usage persists in western Asia.2 As recently as 75 years ago, Jews in Palestine placed drops of oil of marjoram directly into cavities of teeth.14
Fried onion: Russia had a different remedy to help mollify toothaches that has similarities to acupressure. Wrap a fried onion in a small cloth. If the tooth hurting is on the right side of the face, place the onion on the right wrist. If the tooth hurting is on the left, place the onion on the left wrist.2 And if the ache is in the front teeth, place the bag just below the thumb joint of one or both wrists.2
Cayenne pepper: In parts of South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean islands, cayenne pepper offers a remedy so strong that some claim toothaches are a thing of the past.15 Remove the top from the cayenne pepper pod and remove the seeds. Fill the pod with salt and wine vinegar until the pod is full. Bake in an oven until the vinegar reaches its boiling point. Remove it from the oven and dip a cotton swab into the pepper pod.2 Apply it to the sore tooth immediately and continue as needed.
Cumin, frankincense, and carob: The ancient Egyptians revered the carob tree enough to paint it on the walls of famous tombs. Equal parts of ground cumin, frankincense, and carob were applied to teeth that had been "eaten away" to the gum (i.e., that had decayed). This mixture is said to provide relief.2
Swelling and bleeding
Witch hazel: Witch hazel is among the Native American folk remedies introduced to early settlers of the United States.16 A cloth soaked in witch-hazel tea is said to reduce swelling and control bleeding after extractions.2
Acupressure: The ancient Chinese believed in acupressure as a means of stopping bleeding gums.17 Pressure applied to the Hoku point (the web between the index finger and thumb) is said to stop bleeding in the body, including the mouth.2 During one time, this was the postoperative instruction given after extractions. However, pregnant women are warned not to apply pressure to this point, as it can stimulate contractions of the uterus.2
Nettle root: In Russia and the Balkans, the Slavs concocted a nettle remedy to reduce swelling and claimed that it made toothaches disappear.2 In a seasoned earthenware, glass, or non-aluminum pot, boil a cupful of powdered nettle root and a pinch of saffron in a pint of fresh milk. As soon as the milk comes to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Immediately dip a large, clean cloth in the milk, wring it out, and apply the cloth directly to the swollen cheek.2 As soon as one compress cools, apply another hot one until the swelling is reduced.9
Arnica: The British, French, and Germans have used Arnica for more than 200 years. More recently (within the past 50 years or so), dental patients have used it before, during, and after dental procedures.2 The claim is that it aids in the healing of open wounds.2 Placing four 6C Arnica pills (purchasable online or in a health-food store) under the tongue for up to an hour prior to a dental procedure is believed to help with healing.
Calendula: Calendula flowers were a mainstay of European folk medicine.2 The juice of calendula was used by the French as a mouthwash.18,32 Swishing with diluted calendula juice was believed to relieve tender gums.19 The Swiss, Belgians, and Dutch used calendula tea as a mouthwash to soothe sensitive gums.2 Today, calendula tea is also used after dental work to heal the gums.20 Make calendula tea with one tablespoon of calendula flowers and one cup of boiling water. Steep the tea for 10 minutes and then discard the flowers. Swish the tea through the mouth.
Mint tea and egg yolk: Greeks traditionally drink mint tea as a safeguard against sensitive gums. The Dutch, on the other hand, will soak gauze in a mixture of beaten egg yolk, a tablespoon of olive oil, and a teaspoon of sugar and then apply the gauze to the sore gum.2
Blueberries: Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) are an invaluable medicine. Even today, a mouthwash created from blueberries is used to help with gum inflammation in Europe.10 Squash some fresh or unsweetened frozen blueberries, add water to make a paste, and apply over inflamed gums.31 Alternatively, you can add five to 10 drops of blueberry tincture to a glass of water and rinse three times a day.
Vervain: The early Celtic people of Great Britain and Gaul, known as the Druids, used vervain (Verbena officinalis), one of their most sacred and purifying herbs to relieve soft and spongy gums.21 They used two tablespoons of vervain with one cup of boiling water. After it cooled, it was used as a mouthwash.2 Today, many botanical houses carry vervain tea. Pregnant women, however, should avoid the herb during pregnancy, as it is a uterine stimulant.22
Goldenseal: Native Americans introduced the power of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) to the early American explorer.23 Using a rinse made from one teaspoon dissolved in water or applying the goldenseal powder directly to the gums is believed to be effective for many gum problems, including canker sores.2 Today we can purchase the powder or tincture in health-food stores or online.
Licorice: For over 5,000 years, the Chinese have used licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra and Glycyrrhiza uralensis) in herbal remedies.24 Taking tablets, 20 minutes before eating three times a day, is considered to relieve the discomfort caused by aphthous ulcers. People with high blood pressure should not use this product or any product containing licorice!25
Figs: Figs have been recognized as a helpful medicine since biblical times. A poultice of figs is said to draw out poisons, and toasted figs were favored for gumboils.2 Italians had a different approach involving figs: They placed them against a throbbing tooth to allay the ache.26
A sore throat could be the first indication that the immune system is being challenged to fight off sickness. There are dozens of safe home remedies that historically have offered relief.
Salt: Salt has been used from the earliest times as a means to soothe a sore throat. In India, however, many people today will gargle daily with a pinch of salt and a pinch of turmeric. They do this as a preventive measure and to clear their throats of mucus. Another variation of gargling with warm salt water comes from an ancient yogic tradition.27 While gargling with warm salt water, practice the throat opening sounds "oh," "ay," "mi," and "li."2 If you persevere, you will find that your throat opens and relief is given.
Ginger juice and pineapple juice: Hawaii has had a long history of effective native medicine. Gargling with warm gingerroot juice has been considered to relieve sore throats and inflamed tonsils.28 Naturopathic doctors today have improved on this remedy by alternating gargling with warm ginger juice and gargling with cold pineapple juice. Boil one-half cup of water and one teaspoon of powdered ginger, just until boiling. Once it has cooled, add one-quarter teaspoon of honey and the juice of half of a lemon. Alternate gargling with the ginger juice mixture and with cool pineapple juice. Repeat as needed.
Beets: In old Amish culture, fresh beets were the cure for sore throats.2 Grate the beets into a four-inch-wide strip in the middle of a dish towel. Make a pocket by gathering three sides of the towel. Place the towel around your neck with the beet side next to your throat. Pin the towel closed with a safety pin. When the beets turn green, discard them and start again. Be careful to protect your clothing ... beets have also traditionally been used as clothing dye!
Cayenne pepper: Early Americans were hardworking people who resented losing time to illness. That's why cayenne pepper became one of their favorite medicinal herbs.29 They added a pinch of cayenne to a glass of water, gargled vigorously, and in minutes, the sore throat would feel cauterized.
Sauerkraut juice: Europeans and early Americans gargled with sauerkraut juice-the fermented juice of the cabbage plant.2 To make homemade sauerkraut, layer scores of chopped cabbage leaves in a Crock-Pot, sprinkling salt over each layer. Cover it with a clean cloth and tightly weigh it down with a stone or heavy plates. Let it sit for six weeks or more. Draw off the juice and gargle as needed to alleviate a sore throat.
Inflammation, perio, and caries
Blackberry roots: Periodontal disease and its resulting loose teeth have always been a problem. In past centuries, English herbalists had a unique solution.2 They chopped blackberry roots and boiled them in vinegar for half an hour, and they would advise their patients to wash their teeth with the warmed liquid three times a day. It was claimed that after three weeks, the teeth were no longer shaky.2
Lavender: The British used lavender to preserve loose teeth by dropping a handful of flowers into a pot of boiling water, straining the flowers, and gargling with the cooled lavender water.2 Once again, it was claimed to preserve teeth.2,30
Toothaches have always been a part of the human condition. There was a need for our ancestors to use remedies that we would today consider to be "alternative," and I've revealed many of their claims in this article. They may not all work, but then again, some might. With the growing recognition of the power of volatile oils and herbs, the trend toward natural medicine is growing. If you are interested in learning of other natural remedies for the entire body, I highly recommend the resources below. You, too, may find the study of ancient cures insightful and fascinating!
1. Nuwer R. Alternative medicine is a $34 billion industry, but only one-third of the treatments have been tested. Smithsonian magazine website. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/alternative-medicine-is-a-34-billion-industry-but-only-one-third-of-the-treatments-have-been-tested-879411/?no-ist. Published June 18, 2013.
2. Buchman DD. Ancient healing secrets: Practical cures from Egypt, China, India, South America, Russia, Scandinavia and more. New York, NY: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers; 2005.
3. Mandal MD, Mandal S. Honey: Its medicinal property and antibacterial activity. Asian Pac J Trop Biomed. 2011 Apr;1(2):154-160.
4. 4 http://www.benefits-of-honey.com/honey-properties.html
5. Borreli L. Liquid gold: 7 health benefits of honey that could heal your whole body. Medical Daily website.http://www.medicaldaily.com/liquid-gold-7-health-benefits-honey-could-heal-your-whole-body-325932. Published March 17, 2015.
10. Borchers AT, Keen CL, Stem JS, Gershwin ME. Inflammation and Native American medicine: The role of botanicals. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Aug;72(2):339-347.
11. Hoffman T. Ginger: An ancient remedy and modern miracle drug. Hawaii Med J. 2007 Dec;66(12):326-327.
14. Fauvel C. The magic healing power of marjoram. Raw Energy Benefits website. http://rawfoodenergybenefits.com/2887/raw-food-benefits/the-raw-kitchen/ingredients-the-raw-kitchen/the-magic-healing-power-of-marjoram/.
15. Group E. 17 health benefits of cayenne pepper. Global Healing Center website. http://www.globalhealingcenter.com/natural-health/benefits-of-cayenne-pepper/. Published June 21, 2010. Updated October 21, 2015.
18. Priddy B. 10 herbal remedies for swelling and fluid retention. Progressive Health website. http://www.progressivehealth.com/10-herbs-for-fluid-retention.htm.
31. Asnan Portal Team. Blueberry extract might fight gum disease. Asnan Portal website. http://asnanportal.com/index.php/dental-report/news/868-blueberry-extract-might-fight-gum-disease. Published November 1, 2015.
32. Khairnar MS, Pawar B, Marawar PP, Mani A. Evaluation of Calendula officinalis as an anti-plaque and anti-gingivitis agent. J Indian Soc Periodontol. 2013 Nov-Dec;17(6):741-747.