Increasingly, many patients are asking their dentist if the metals in their mouths are still considered safe. This trend does not seem to be abating, with new evidence suggesting that some metals, such as nickel and mercury, have the potential to stimulate either strong allergic reactions in some people and low-grade systemic inflammation in others. The time is overdue for an open and honest discussion of both the risks and benefits of using metals in the mouth.
The use of various metals in dentistry is nothing new and was gradually introduced into the mainstream profession to address the diverse challenges dentists were faced with in their time. Pierre Fauchard was a 17th-century French physician who elevated the practice, along with the understanding of dental disease. His achievements included the extensive use of dental plates to improve people’s chewing, the filling of decayed teeth and the use of wires to move teeth orthodontically.
Three hundred years on, we are finding more innovative ways to use different metals (often as alloys) to address the issues that face us today. Titanium dental implants and resilient cobalt-chromium dentures have given millions of patients the ability to chew their food once again and improve the quality of their lives. For those with crooked teeth, nickel-titanium wires have allowed dentists to quickly and predictability move teeth into their correct alignment.
So what impact do metals have in the body? Metals including mercury, lead and nickel are known to inhibit, over-stimulate or alter the function of enzymes in the body. Mercury can encourage the overgrowth of fungal infections such as candida, while the accumulation of aluminium and lead has been linked to impaired brain function.
The symptoms for patients with actual metal sensitivity can range from a change in the appearance of the oral skin to excessive fatigue and autoimmune diseases. In addition to a patch test, the commercially available MELISA blood test gives us a bird’s eye view of how a patient’s immune cells are actually behaving in the presence of a specific metal. A patient proven to be highly allergic to a particular metal would be strongly advised to avoid it, just as you would do with a substance in the case of a food or environmental allergy.
As with any dental or medical intervention, it is always a question of assessing whether the risks of the proposed treatment outweigh the perceived benefits. These choices are made by millions of patients every day. Consider, for instance, the patient suffering with painful arthritic knees who can no longer walk. In the majority of cases, the option to proceed with titanium knee implants is far more appealing than living the rest of their days in a wheelchair.
The dental industry, thankfully, has introduced metal-free options for people requiring dentures, implants, crowns and orthodontics. To the left is an image of a lab-made all-ceramic dental onlay. While this trend is very encouraging and is set to continue, there are some metal-free items that are clearly inferior. Metal-free dental implants, for instance, have been trialled but are prone to breakage in the mouth.
To put things into perspective, metals in the mouth may not be the main contributor to heavy metal accumulation in our bodies. For those interested, a more in-depth understanding of where these heavy metals are coming from can be found here. A hair and skin analysis of children who have never had exposure to dental work often picks up an accumulation of toxic arsenic, lead and mercury in their bodies. Some of the causes leading to this heavy metal load include chronic ingestion of food allergens, a leaky gut and insufficient dietary zinc.
So what approach should be implemented? I believe we need to adopt a preventative strategy to protect all Australians from every avoidable exposure to heavy metals. One only needs to look at the mountain of heavy metals found in our food, cosmetics and healthcare system to realise that much needs to be done before we will have the freedom to choose.
To reduce your exposure to heavy metal accumulation, I would choose metal-free options whenever they provide a satisfactory substitute. Second, boost your immune system by ensuring you’re eating adequate zinc and maintaining an alkaline diet. Finally, focus on a lifestyle that encourages your body to naturally detox. Well-proven methods of detoxification include the use of infrared saunas, specific herbs and a good quality sleep.