What's a Holistic Dentist? A Primer for Learning About Alternative Oral Care (2024)

By Cass Nelson-Dooley, MS

Did you know your oral health is a good indicator of your overall health? Yep, what goes on in your mouth can affect organs and tissues elsewhere in the body – like your heart, brain, gut, and joints. That’s a good argument for seeing a dentist who takes a whole-body approach to oral health – one that goes beyond just focusing on your teeth and gums.

There are lots of terms to describe this kind of alternative dentistry. Natural, holistic, functional, integrative, oral-systemic, and biologic might be some of the terms you’ve heard. But what do these many types of dentists actually do that’s different from what conventional dentists do? And how do you know which type of dentist to choose? Let’s get to know the differences so you can find a dentist who’s right for you.

What’s a conventional dentist?

Let’s start with what we all know best – a conventional dentist. A dentist takes care of your teeth and mouth. They help prevent and fix dental problems to keep your smile beautiful and pain-free. They use various materials (including some that might have chemicals) to fix cavities, restore teeth, and manage oral health.

Dentists go to dental school and earn a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree. The education and training for both degrees are very similar, and both dentists do the same kinds of procedures. Dentists do checkups and cleanings, x-rays, fill cavities, extract teeth, and cover damaged teeth with dental crowns. They may use braces to align teeth, create dentures, place dental implants, and perform root canals.

Some dentists go on to specialize in specific areas, like orthodontics (braces), oral surgery, endodontics (working inside the tooth, as with root canals), or pediatric dentistry. To become specialists, these dentists often need extra education and training after dental school.

While a conventional dentist knows that the mouth plays a critical part in overall health, they may not incorporate that knowledge in their patient education, dental protocols, or treatments.

What other kinds of dentists are there?

All dentists start with the same foundational training from dental school. What’s different for alternative dentists (outlined in the list below) is the approach they take to your oral health and the additional training they may pursue.

Biological

These dentists use a biocompatible or “biological” approach to oral health. They seek the safest, least toxic, and least damaging methods for dental care. They don’t use mercury or fluoride. They are very careful about metal implants, believing that metals in the mouth must be tailored to, or biocompatible with, the patient. They believe the mouth is connected to the whole body, and they treat the mouth accordingly.

Holistic

A holistic dentist is a type of dentist who considers the overall health of a person, not just their teeth. They focus on how oral health is connected to the rest of the body. They make the patient central to the dental care experience and put them in the driver’s seat to make informed decisions.

Holistic dentists value information and training beyond the standard dental school courses. Areas of additional training might include ceramic implants, hormonal balance, traditional Chinese medicine for dentistry, healthy longevity, and the role of nitric oxide (not to be confused with “nitrous” oxide). Holistic dentists collaborate with practitioners in other disciplines to promote optimum, whole-body healthcare. A holistic dentist improves a person’s overall health with dentistry, valuing the patient-dentist relationship, education, and informed consent.

Natural

A natural dentist, much like the others mentioned here, sees your mouth and your body as a whole. This type of dentistry may overlap significantly with holistic, natural, or biological dentistry.

Natural dentists receive the same standard dental training as conventional dentists and encourage a dental hygiene regimen of flossing and brushing. They may also offer nutrition education, herbal medicine, homeopathy, electroacupuncture, and even spiritual healing. They use nutritional therapies and herbs instead of antibiotic mouthwash and fluoride toothpaste, for example. And they tend to avoid traditional dental materials, such as fluoride and mercury fillings.

Oral-systemic

An oral-systemic dentist is another type of dentist who recognizes that oral health is vital to overall health. They focus on the well-documented connections between gum disease and heart disease, for example. They acknowledge that problems elsewhere in the body, such as mouth breathing and sleep apnea, can lead to headaches, dental caries (cavities), or oral cancer.

Oral-systemic dentists promote interdisciplinary collaboration with medical practitioners for better patient whole-body health. The American Academy for Oral & Systemic Health (AAOSH) has led the way in this area since 2010, empowering and educating dental and medical professionals on the oral-systemic connection. These practitioners might be more likely to be called integrative dentists as they integrate both alternative dental practices and conventional dental training and collaborate with other medical professionals.

Integrative

The best definition I found of integrative dentistry was this one from Dr. Michael Baylin:

“Integrative dentistry is a medical approach to dentistry that considers the effects that dental treatments, dental materials, and dental infections have on the entire body. It is a comprehensive approach that combines the art and science of dentistry with neuromuscular, biological, physiologic, holistic medical principles, and natural therapies.”

These dentists aim to treat dental issues while considering the whole person, not just focusing on teeth and gums. They may use natural and non-toxic materials and collaborate with other healthcare professionals to provide comprehensive care.

Functional

Functional dentistry might just wrap up all these different dentists under one umbrella. Functional dentistry borrows from the term “functional medicine,” a medical approach that addresses the root causes of disease, not the symptoms. Functional medicine aims to restore proper function to biological tissues, which often requires correcting underlying causes. Functional dentists look for the root causes of dental problems. They want to prevent and reverse disease, not just fix broken teeth. Dietary recommendations, sleep quality, and prevention are key considerations for functional dentists.

Achieve Better Health With a Dentist Who Addresses Root Causes

Despite their differences, each of these dentists focuses on discovering the root causes behind the symptoms and addressing those issues for lasting solutions. Conventional dentists seek to repair damage in the mouth, fix broken teeth, and treat tooth infections, but they fail to go deeper. They don’t have tools to address the mouth as an integral part of whole-body health.

Problems in the mouth can often be traced back to toxic dental materials, airway problems, and hidden infections. On the flip side, problems in the mouth can cause disease in more distant parts of the body, like the heart, joints, and brain.

If you’re suffering from chronic tooth decay, bleeding gums, mouth sores, pain, numbness, or even unexplained chronic illnesses, you just might want a biological or holistic dental expert on your team. Find one using the resources in my blog post, Why You Might Need a New Dentist and How to Find One.

The Ideal Players to Have on Your Healthcare Team

The very best whole-body healthcare scenario is to have an alternative dentist AND an integrative and functional medicine practitioner. And don’t forget your dental hygienist! You can find biological dental hygienists who have accreditation. These dental professionals play a vital role on the dental care team. When you find a biological dentist or holistic dentist in your area, chances are the dental hygienists in their office will also be savvy to the root causes of your oral health problems and non-toxic solutions.

What's a Holistic Dentist? A Primer for Learning About Alternative Oral Care (2024)

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