Chewing Neem Sticks: Wisdom in Ancient Practices

Science is progressive, dynamic and evolutionary.  Sometimes or often times, science can add value to or explore certain time tested traditional practices. In this particular discussion, we look at how scientific methods add value to a very old cultural practice in Asia, especially India.

Chewing Neem Sticks is a beneficial practice that was widely prevalent in India. The introduction of toothbrushes and toothpastes has led to a reduction of this practice in urban areas, however, the practice is still prevalent in rural India.

Neem has several benefits

  1. It has strong anti bacterial properties
  2. It has strong anti oxidant properties
  3. It has strong anti inflammatory properties
  4. It has immunomodulatory properties

In other words, Neem protects against bacteria and thus against infections, protects against damage to cells, reduces inflammation and can improve the capacity of the body and tissues against diseases. Chewing Neem Sticks also has a mechanical action on the teeth (similar to tooth brushes)  that helps remove material stuck between or on teeth and plaques. The mechanical motion increases saliva (spit) in the mouth which again increases the antibacterial activity. The 2000 Consensus Report on Oral Hygiene  by the World Health Organization recommends chewing of neem sticks because of the several benefits it offers.

This is a good example of an ancient cultural practice standing its worth in the light of modern scientific assessments. This is also a good example that we should not just debunk ancient practices as non scientific but explore them to understand the wisdom that led to the practice being widely used.

A recent study by Heyman L, et al, published in the BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2017; 17: 399, further expands on the benefits of Neem against periodontal diseases  (infections of the gums and teeth). The article provides an example of how an old cultural practice is tested using modern principles of science to assess its worth in current times. The authors conclude that neem extracts provide a long lasting antibacterial effect. The authors recommend that further studies are done to fully assess the clinical effects.

The online version of the article can be accessed here

Print Friendly VersionHeyman L et al article on neem extracts and periodontitis

Why do I share this research? Just a few pointers in that direction.

  • It shows that we can use modern scientific practices to validate traditional practices
  • It shows us that ancient practices are not to be just debunked as ancient; they may hold great value and be based on scientific principles
  • It shows us how the world around us is filled with ideas and material that can be explored and studied further. It is not always necessary that research is only about exotic, expensive ideas
  • It shows us how research rigor can add value to our understanding of the wisdom passed on from many ancient cultures and civilizations.
  • India is a hub of ancient wisdom and medical practices. Charaka and Sushruta led the way long long ago, much before the Virchow models took prime position in the concept of health and disease. It will be good to see traditional streams of healthcare in India (Ayurveda, Unani, even Yoga) explore research in ancient practices with scientific rigor and disseminate those findings.

There have been a few studies on Neem and the teeth and mouth from India (besides exploring the effects of Neem in other areas of the body). More can and should be done to explore (or rediscover) the science behind our ancient health care practices.

Selected references

  1. Brahmachari G. Neem-an omnipotent plant. A retrospection. Chem Bio Chem 2004;5:408-21
  2. Prakash D et al. Total phenol, antioxidant and free scavenging activities of some medicinal plants. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2007; 58:  18-28
  3. Vanka A et al. The effect of indigenous Neem Azadirachta Indica mouthwash on Streptococcus Mutans and lactobacilli growth. Indian J Dent Res. 2001;12: 133-44
  4. Prashant GM et al. The effect of Mango and Neem extract on four organisms causing dental caries: Streptococcus Mutans, Streptococcus Salivavius, Streptococcus Mitis and Streptococcus Sanguis: an in vitro study. Indian J Dent Res. 2007; 18: 148-51
  5. Loe H. Oral Hygiene in the prevention of caries and periodontal disease. Int Dent J. 2000; 50(3): 129-39
  6. Wu CD, et al. Chewing sticks: timeless natural toothbrushes for oral cleansing. J Periodontal Res. 2001; 36: 275-84
  7. World Health Organization. WHO monographs on selected medicinal plants. Volume 3. Geneva. World Health Organization 2007


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