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African Chewing Stick vs Conventional Toothbrush and Toothpaste: A Scientific Verdict

Westernization convinced Africans to turn their backs on the chewing stick and adopt the imported toothpaste and toothbrush, such that the African chewing stick is now consigned to the much older populations found in rural areas.
Photo: Canon EOS 7D

Dental health in many traditional African societies is considered with the utmost seriousness. What follows waking up in the morning is usually the chewing of some cut-out stem of certain trees commonly identified as medicinal in a community.

Scientific studies of archeological excavations have established that early Africans had remarkably healthy teeth, with very few incidences of tooth decay. Chewing sticks and wholesome diets constitute the reasons for the excellent dentition that Africans had in those days. Westernization, however, convinced Africans to turn their backs on the chewing stick and adopt the imported toothpaste and toothbrush, such that the African chewing stick is now consigned to the much older populations found in rural areas.

Some scientific research recently conducted on certain trees commonly used as chewing sticks across Africa has established that these chewing sticks are much more beneficial to the teeth than the commonly used toothpaste, toothbrush and mouthwash, which can even be detrimental to the health of our teeth.

In an article published in the British Microbiology Research Journal, a group of researchers tried to compare different brands of commercial mouthwashes against extracts of the stem of African bitterleaf or Vernonia amygdalina, commonly used as chewing stick in rural parts of Africa. The goal was to determine, between the two, which is more effective against some tooth decay-causing bacteria. Results obtained from the research show that the African bitterleaf stem contains strong antibacterial activity that works”against bacteria-causing tooth infection as compared to various brands of mouthwashes” and even commercial oral antibiotics. Researchers, through experiments and testing of various compounds contained in the stem of Vernonia amygdalina, have established that the plant contains much stronger “natural antimicrobial ingredients” when compared to commercial mouthwashes. The researchers recommended the “plant’s stem [should be used] in the form chewing stick… [or]“as ingredients in manufacturing mouthwashes.”

More research on the matter was published in the journal, Oral Surgery, Oral Medicine, Oral Pathology and Oral Radiology with the title “Antibacterial activity of extracts from some African chewing sticks.” Scientists, in a laboratory study, tested the antibacterial activity of five popular African chewing sticks against a variety of bacteria, including streptococci and Escherichia coli. The result indicated that all chewing sticks tested have active principles that resist bacteria in various degrees. The researchers concluded by suggesting that “the regular use of the African chewing stick, acting as an antiseptic, may control the formation and activity of dental plaque and therefore reduce the incidence of gingivitis and possibly dental caries.”

In a publication in the American Journal of Phytomedicine and Clinical Therapeutics, researchers tested the antibacterial activity in Vernonia adoensis, a plant commonly used as a chewing stick in parts of Africa. Results from the research showed that extracts from the stem of Vernonia adoensis inhibited the growth of all the tested bacteria. The study concluded that the bark from the stem of Vernonia adoensis has the “potential to prevent orally infectious diseases caused by selected bacteria that commonly cause oral diseases.”

More evidence published in the Global Journal of Pharmacology titled “Antimicrobial Activities of Vernonia amygdalina Against Oral Microbes,” researchers identified the stem and roots of Vernonia amygdalina as one of the plant resources traditionally used in Africa for cleaning teeth by chewing them into a brush. Both parts of the plant are equally utilized in addressing oral health challenges in traditional African pharmacology. Researchers studied the “antimicrobial activity of vernonia amygdalina plant so as to find an alternative for the common antibiotics presently in use” in the treatment of oral diseases. These antibiotics come with several side effects, in addition to many oral diseases developing a resistance to them over a period of time. Findings from the research indicate thatt the leaves of Vernonia amygdalina contain some antibacterial agents that act strongly on several species of bacteria. The report notes that bacteria “varied widely in their degree ofsusceptibility to the plant extracts” of Vernonia amygdalina and that different concentrations of Vernonia amygdalina extract showed various degrees of antimicrobial activities against various bacteria.

Moreover, numerous studies have established that some components of commercial toothpaste contain compounds that can cause various diseases, including colon cancer. Indeed, the regular plastic toothbrush has been noted by researchers to be a trapping device for countless germs and“can harbor more than 100 million bacteria, including E. coli bacteria, which can cause diarrhea, and staphylococci (“Staph”) bacteria that cause skin infections.” As a result, the American Dental Association recommends throwing out your toothbrush every three months. There is no study on how many Africans replace their toothbrush every 3 months, but anecdotal evidence will suggest that many use their toothbrush for much longer. The cost of a quarterly toothbrush replacement might be insignificant to many in the United States, but this might not be the case for some in Africa.

Further, a toothbrush is typically plastic, and the menace of plastic accumulation globally is a matter of urgent concern to many well-informed citizens around the world. Research has shown that the United States produces more plastic waste than any other nation in the world and also “ranks as high as third among coastal nations as far as “litter, illegally dumped trash and other mismanaged waste” is concerned. This is not the kind of advancement African nations want to emulate.

African researchers, start-ups and interested investors will do well to explore the numerous benefits of the chewing stick in order to improve on user experience while retaining the wholesomeness and health benefits associated with its use. Sustainable, earth and community-responsive approaches to tooth cleaning must be explored and crafted by Africans using the age-old indigenous knowledge-based chewing sticks.

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