Compared to our early ancestors, our jaws are much smaller, narrower. But why? And what are the consequences? That’s the concern of a new book we recently received, Jaws: The Story of a Hidden Epidemic. And while preventing the problem might not be an option for us adults, we can help our kids avoid it.
Its authors, Sandra Kahn and Paul R. Ehrlich, come to the issue from the perspective of both dentistry and biology, respectively. They explain how cultural changes – particularly the shift to softer diets – have contributed to smaller jaws and narrower airways.
This change means more than just crowded, crooked teeth and weak chins. Underdeveloped orofacial structures and compromised airways can lead to issues with sleep apnea, high blood pressure, cardiovascular issues, mental and cognitive health, gastrointestinal issues, and more.
As the author’s show, the physical action of chewing is critical for the development of strong, healthy jaws and teeth. Yet they seem to downplay the fact that composition of the diet matters, too. Modern diets aren’t just soft. They’re hyper-processed, with products full of added sugars, synthetic additives, GMOs, and so on, while tending to be less nutrient-dense than diets based on whole foods.
The authors argue that the focus on nutrition has become a distraction from the impact of chewing on orofacial development.
With all this attention to the healthiness of what foods we and our children eat (or avoid eating) missing is the discussion of whether our children are eating them in the right way—chewing and swallowing properly to aid their development. And, as we said, little or no consideration is given to the health importance of what children do with their mouths when they are at rest.
And it’s not just how we eat, but how we breathe and use our mouths in general.
If you from an early age develop the habits of perpetually mouth breathing, eating mostly soft foods that require little chewing, and sleeping restlessly, snoring and squirming through every night, that could lead to distorted development of your jaws, face, and airway (the passage through which air enters and leaves the lungs) and to serious health problems later on—even to an early death.
The solution offered by the book is orthotropics, which they call “forwardontics” to better differentiate the treatment from orthodontics. Developed by pioneering orthodontist John Mew, orthotropics helps guide teeth back to their original course through alternative and less practiced methods of postural discipline.
But this is one option among an increasing number of therapies available to help correct the problems of underdeveloped jaws, from appliance therapy to myofunctional therapy to laser therapy. The ideal is to work with a well-trained holistic or biological dentist to develop a custom treatment plan based on your – or your child’s – current oral-systemic health status, needs, desires, and values.
The best solution of all? Prevention. As the authors note in their introduction,
An array of evidence indicates children’s future well-being can be greatly enhanced by encouraging a few simple habits early in life. Consider how you yourself breathe, chew, and position your mouth when not speaking or eating.
Suggestions for parents include breastfeeding children for as long as possible with a gradual weaning process; teaching good chewing behaviors, good overall body and oral posture (“lips closed, tongue on the palate, and teeth touching lightly together”), and breathing behaviors; and attention to allergies or labored breathing.
It’ll be interesting to see how current nutritional trends – paleo, keto, Mediterranean, and the like – impact jaw growth in the future. Many of us are focusing on taking our diets back to the core of meat, nuts, and vegetables, closer to the “caveman” days when our food required more chewing.
Those kinds of foods – whole foods prepared with minimal processing – are what we were designed to thrive on, after all.