Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
9 Apr

Caveman Breath

When I first tell people I’m on a Primal Blueprint diet emulating our ancient ancestors, the witty ones are usually quick with a clever comment or two, usually referencing the Flintstones, heavy brow ridges, monosyllabic grunts, or some combination of the three. A hearty laugh is shared (mine being exceedingly polite), and they’ll go on to ask if I’ve experienced increased hair growth, whether or not I met my wife by clubbing her over the head, and if I’ve got caveman breath (always accompanied by a theatrical, exaggerated step backward). What would I do without such comedians?

I gotta admit, though, they might have a point about the caveman breath. Although I don’t have a problem with it personally (unless my wife has kept quiet all these years), bad breath is a common complaint I hear about low-carb dieters. Strangely enough, I rarely hear it from actual low-carbers, but rather from overly critical skeptics. Still, bad breath does happen to everyone, and I for one would be wary of engaging Grok in a close heart to heart talk over some fermented mammoth milk. Even on our own comment boards, reader madMUHHH complained about having constant bad breath. Of course, he was also eating loads of garlic and onions, which are notorious causes of bad breath (regardless of the overall diet), but it does go to show that just because we’re eating healthy Primal foods, it doesn’t mean we’re immune to the ravages of bad breath.

But are we Blueprinters especially susceptible to bad breath? First, let’s examine the most common causes.

Bacteria/Tooth Decay
Most bad breath you encounter is probably due to poor dental hygiene. Brushing isn’t enough for some people; sometimes you need to physically remove chunks of food from between your teeth. I doubt Grok was a big brusher, but he probably picked his teeth with bones or sharpened sticks (I think the annoying sensation of meat stuck in between your teeth is universally hated). Still, he ate a lot of meat, and he didn’t gargle, so it’s quite likely that stringy bits of meat got lodged between his teeth. Meat rots, and rotting meat stinks, especially when it’s bottled up in a hot, fetid environment (like the mouth). Pick your teeth or floss, especially after ribs, and don’t play spin the bottle with Grok after he’s just eaten.

Tooth decay is a more insidious cause of bad breath, but that wasn’t an issue for Grok. In fact, Stephan from Whole Health Source posted a great write up discussing the (now out of print) book Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture. In the book, anthropologists compare dental and skeletal records from both Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and Mesolithic agriculturalists and determine that with intense agriculture “incidence of carbohydrate-related tooth disease increases.” As long as you’re eating like Grok and avoiding sugars and starchy carbs, tooth decay probably isn’t the cause of bad breath.

Burning ketones for energy has a reputation for causing bad breath. In reality, it’s a “different” smell than most are used to, but not necessarily bad. In fact, the slightly sweet scent that sometimes results from ketosis is probably pretty close to how Grok’s breath smelled (provided he had picked his teeth, of course). That is, ketosis breath might actually be “normal” on the meat-and-plant-heavy Primal Blueprint eating plan. I sometimes notice an odd scent when I’m fasting, and I’m guessing it’s just those ketones at work.

The good news is that most bad breath caused by food is relatively short-lived. Once you eat, brush, and floss, for the most part you’ll have taken care of the bad breath. The bad news is that some of the best foods – like fish, garlic, or onions – can linger on your breath for days. If you eat a can of sardines, your breath is probably going to stink for a while. Add some garlic to the mix and you’ll have issues – like our friend madMUHHH (just kidding!).

Gut Issues
Bad breath can stem from digestive issues. If your body reacts poorly to certain foods, eating them can cause bad breath. For most of the world, lactose-intolerance makes eating dairy a recipe for awful odor. Others react terribly to garlic or onions (more so than even poor madMUHHH), and there’s not much than can be done to avoid it.

Okay. Bad breath in some form or another is pretty much inevitable, even if you’re eating the right foods (sometimes because you’re eating the right foods!), but there are some pretty easy, natural ways to fight it.

Floss or pick your teeth. For extra authenticity, use a bone shard, a sharpened flint arrowhead, or a tendon from a rival tribesman.

If you want to avoid the artificial sweeteners and fluoride that make up most toothpastes, go with a natural brand. Most health food stores, or grocery shops like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods will have natural toothpastes. Or you could just brush with baking soda, though that might not clear up any particularly pungent food odors.

Chew mint, or put a few drops of mint oil on your toothbrush and go to town. Mint smells great, plus it naturally cools your mouth. Be warned, though – the mint oil is intense stuff.

Reader E M suggests ginger. I love ginger, but had never tried it as a breath freshener. I can safely report that it does cut through bad breath – provided you like the smell of ginger in the first place (which I do).

Chewing on a lime or lemon wedge can freshen the breath in a pinch.

For bad breath caused by gut issues, chlorophyll is said to help.

Various Chewables
Try chewing parsley, fennel, or anise seeds to take care of superficial bad breath.

As long as you’re eating Primal foods, you shouldn’t have any systemic issues causing the bad breath and the above methods should take care of any temporary problem.

What are your thoughts? Any tips on how to fight bad breath? Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Going Grubby: The Primal Benefits of Dirt, Dust and Dishevelment

10 Things You (Likely) Don’t Know About Your Immune System

New Natural Bad Breath Cure Also Relieves Stress

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. A warning on the mint: do not ingest any immediately after eating. Mint relaxes some of the muscles in the digestive system which can lead to heatburn/reflux. I experienced this myself recently (right before hearing of it). I had a cup up mint tea after dinner and experienced uncomfortable heartburn! & it’s something I rarely have. Now I do enjoy that handful of fennel seeds at Indian restaurants however.

    Peggy wrote on April 9th, 2009
  2. I just heard this story on the radio yesterday about monkeys teaching their off-spring to floss their teeth:

    At an Indian restaurant I go to, they hand out little bowls of fennel seeds at the end of the meal to cleanse the breath.

    dragonmamma wrote on April 9th, 2009
  3. I am an occasional mint chewer myself. pop in some real mint leaves and you will be good to go.

    The SoG

    Son of Grok wrote on April 9th, 2009
  4. Hi Mark, found out about your blog from other fitness bloggers and again yesterday from gym junkies.

    Personally, I haven’t experienced this so called “caveman breath” as I just started the primal way of eating recently. I have been fasting for quite some time though but I haven’t fasted long enough to notice the effects of Ketosis in my breath (although I have heard about it).

    I enjoy reading through your site and I will keep coming back for more for sure. I especially like the post on chocolate as I am a big fan of it :) My home work for this weekend is to buy dark chocolate and not use it for baking…haha. I can’t wait to eat it with Almond Butter as you suggested.

    Thanks for a great site!

    fitness-siren wrote on April 9th, 2009
  5. I have some gut issues (GERD, I think) that I am still trying to get to the bottom of, and they cause me occasional bad breath. Unfortunately mint and gum chewing is one of the things that makes the stomach issues and heartburn flair up, so I am still looking for a good natural breath freshener for when I am on the go. Any ideas anyone?

    Camille wrote on April 9th, 2009
  6. It’s amazing how many people negate the importance of brushing and flossing (or they know and just coincidentally “ignore” it).
    Camille- mint DROPS work wonders, no chewing necessary!

    Jane wrote on April 9th, 2009
  7. Unfortunately, I’ve had the ketone breath before. On the plus side, it was a marker that I’d managed to keep my carbs so low. On the minus side, I was at a movie theater when I noticed it and realized the people next to me were probably noticing it as well. I moved. To the front row. To no-man’s land.

    Barry wrote on April 9th, 2009
  8. Speaking just for myself, I find my breath to be far more fresh, and my teeth to keep far cleaner when I eat primal/EF/low carb. When I consume carbohydrates I inevitably wake up with trench mouth.

    Could this be because the bacteria feast more lavishly upon whatever carb/sugar remnants are in your mouth?

    Ryon Day wrote on April 9th, 2009
  9. I haven’t had any problems with bad breath that I’ve noticed (and my husband hasn’t said anything either). I do have a brand of fluoride free tooth paste to recommend though, Tom’s of Maine has great toothpaste. They even make a strawberry flavored one for kids!

    Christine Crain wrote on April 9th, 2009
  10. Lisa: check out; he has alot to say about floride & it’s dangers.
    One tip that helps prevent bad breath along w/ all the other excellent tips above is an Ayervedic tool: a tongue scaper. It sounds really weird, and it took me a while to work up the nerve to use it (despite the fact it is quick, easy, painless & effective!)–but now it’s part of my daily self-care ritual (along w/ the neti pot, which also seems to help). Not sure if Grok used tools like these but they certainly seem to fit right into the PB!

    marci wrote on April 9th, 2009
  11. i had problems with bad breath years ago before i went paleo. no more.

    i eat raw meat and sashimi every day, and think it actually helps keep things sanitary.

    i think sugar and starch can wreak esthetic olfactory havoc!

    shel wrote on April 9th, 2009
  12. Haven’t read the full article yet. I’m happy I got mentioned, but “complained about having constant bad breath.” sounds a bit like my breath reached a level that is not socially acceptable anymore. Nah, that’s overexaggerated of course and to be honest, the whole breath thing isn’t really that bad anymore. But whatever, gonna continue reading the article^^.

    madMUHHH wrote on April 9th, 2009
  13. I’ve never had a problem with my breath before but a couple of relatives do. Now they both eat more carbs than I do, though I think at one point two of would have been equal.

    Also when I first started low carb I could definitely smell what I assumed was ketone breath. Recently I’ve noticed it since I’ve started fasting a couple times a week. I wouldn’t call it bad necessarily. My wife notices it also.

    I never floss unless I’ve got something stuck. After high school I brush every morning. Before that not that consistent. Very few cavaties (all pinhole size) before I went low carb. Stephan post is highly recommended.


    Joe Matasic wrote on April 9th, 2009
  14. Okay, I’ve read the full article and now I’m really pissed off. >:-( You must really hate me, Mark.
    Nah, just kidding, actually the article made me laugh quite a bit.

    madMUHHH wrote on April 9th, 2009
  15. There’s another ayurvedic technique called “oil pulling” or “oil swishing”. Oil is taken into the mouth (I use coconut or olive oil but Ayurvedics recommends sesame oil) and swish around in the mouth for about 20 minutes and then spit it out. Then I brush my teeth and floss.
    I had a constantly achy root canaled tooth and once I started this my problem disappeared.

    There is more to their theory that involves blood cleansing – not sure how that would hold up under scientific scrutiny but but for me I believe the antibacterial qualities of the oils may be helpful in removing plaque causing and any other bacteria from the mouth. I would also think that gum tissue would benefit from this. Mine seems to have. And I have advanced periodontal disease.

    I rarely have bad breath unless I’m fighting the rare cold/flu or I stray from the low carb/low sugar way of eating.

    Nancy wrote on April 9th, 2009
  16. “For extra authenticity, use a bone shard, a sharpened flint arrowhead, or a tendon from a rival tribesman.”

    WOW. hahahaha.

    How about clubbing someone to get their tendon? NOW THATS PRIMAL.


    Ryan Denner wrote on April 9th, 2009
  17. No problems here with bad breath, and Grok still got with the ladies bad breath and all.

    There is a huge link between dental hygiene and just about all ailments, fix? Freaking brush your teeth.

    George wrote on April 9th, 2009
  18. On Ted Allen’s show Food Detectives they tested bad breath cures. Once breath is bad, the only thing which made it significantly better was to brush. Gum, fruit, mints, fennel, and parsley didn’t have much effect.

    As for prevention, for me, as long as I floss every day and scrape the tongue a couple times a week, bad breath isn’t a problem even if I’m in ketosis. Just like usual, the basics are almost always the best.

    jg wrote on April 9th, 2009
  19. Great post!
    I’d really like to reenforce the importance of flossing. Almost nobody I know does it regularly or thoroughly enough. You have to build up the gum strength to really get in their and remove bits of bit, etc. After years of practice I can just about manage a good cleaning without my gum bleeding. I’m continually amazed how much food material remains even *after* brushing thoroughly with a high tech electric toothpaste.

    Glenn Whitney wrote on April 10th, 2009
  20. Like some of the others already mentioned, it seems to be the processed carbs that give me the bad breath! If I stick to the veggies and meat and fruit, we’re good to go. But if I stray, I’ll even notice it the next morning, even though I’ve brushed and flossed after the meal itself and before bed. I sort of wrote it off as the result of the carbs being “processed”, for lack of a better word, while I slept. Most of the time I have no issues – and I think consuming large quantities of water helps that also – and definitely helps with body odor across the board!

    Jen wrote on April 15th, 2009
  21. Years ago, in a dentists office, I read an article in the waiting room. It talked about bread and other starchy carbs. I said they were worse than sugar for your teeth. It claimed the sugar would melt fairly quickly but the bread would remain on your teeth for hours. After all they used to make glue, years ago, out of flour and water.

    Big John wrote on April 16th, 2009
  22. Well written article (: I’m kind of surprised that activated charcoal wasn’t mentioned, though. That’s all I ever use to brush my teeth with and they’ve never been whiter or cleaner (it’s actually best to leave the stuff there for awhile to do it’s work, although it does look a bit awful). Also charcoal absorbs toxins… if you drink a tea/tablespoon of it in water it will not only help clean your mouth, it will help clean the rest of your body, too.

    Incredible stuff:

    Candace wrote on June 9th, 2009
  23. Fluoride (the industrial garbage kind) replaces calcium in teeth giving you beige soft spots and promotes dental decay.

    Glycerin in toothpaste coats your teeth so that no re-mineralization can take place, which is bad if you’re trying to fill in cavities with bone broths, cod liver oil and butter oil (Weston A. Price recipe to heal cavities).

    You can make your own tooth soap out of Bronner’s Soap (unscented) and add a few drops of spearmint oil/orange oil drops.

    Suvetar wrote on August 10th, 2010
  24. Its so funny the way you described bad breath as caveman breath. Well, I do believe mouthwash are totally helpful in curing that one. Brushing is not 100% reliable but it is still helpful though.

    Gene Frazier wrote on December 2nd, 2010
  25. After “smell intensive” foods such as garlic, onions, krauts, etc. I use cardamom and cloves as a replacement for all those chewing gums and stuff. And brush my teeth with humble baking soda. That stuff will floss and pick the heck out of anything stuck in your mouth then reminelize with mineral water rinse.

    dodny wrote on September 17th, 2011
  26. After “smell intensive” foods such as garlic, onions, krauts, etc. I use cardamom and cloves as a replacement for all those chewing gums and stuff. And brush my teeth with humble baking soda. That stuff will floss and pick the heck out of anything stuck in your mouth then reminelize with mineral water rinse.

    dodny wrote on September 17th, 2011
  27. Hi to all,

    Ive been on a low carb, no grain, no fruit diet, mostly veggies, meats, nuts, seeds, salads, veg juices, and have had dry mouth and intensely bad breath. I’ve been in the health arena for a few years and I know its not detoxing, or any herb or spice, it is def ketosis breath…and it really sucks. Is there a possibility some people biochemically aren’t made for a low carb diet and could use including some quinoa, and some fruit? any insights would be appreciated?

    jireh wrote on November 23rd, 2011
    • I have heard some people have adverse reactions to a very low carb diet. It can create dry eyes, adrenal fatigue and food allergies according to some. I would not recommend any grains but occasional sweet potatoes and some fruit might be a good thing to experiment with.

      Michelle wrote on February 20th, 2014
  28. I’ve had the opposite experience. When I ate a low/no fat vegan diet I woke up every morning with a thick grayish tongue and unpleasant breath and got cavities. Ever since I stopped, I wake up every morning with a reddish pink tongue, perfectly fine breath and stopped getting cavities. My dentist by the way, blames toothpaste for lots of problems. He says it rots your teeth and gums and recommends flossing instead of brushing and using a natural mouth rinse to freshen.

    Ida Palma wrote on May 31st, 2012
  29. The tongue scraper was exactly what I was going to suggest! (Thinking you’ll be pleasantly surprised!)

    Susan wrote on June 1st, 2012
  30. Breathing through your nose is good.

    Josh wrote on June 1st, 2012
  31. Too bad Spruce Gum is not sold commercially any more. Antiseptic, good cleaning properties, and VERY primal. (YouTube has some DIY videos)

    AdirondGrok wrote on June 1st, 2012
  32. I can’t speak to the issues in this article, but I can share one thing I discovered a long time ago. You can get the residue of food on the back of your tongue, and it will stink to high heaven, and you will not be aware of it. You can see it. The way I found to get it off of there is so simple it is pathetic. Just take a wash cloth, run it under the hot water as hot as you can stand it, and then put it around your fingers and stick it on your tongue and physically scrape it off. You will see the residue on the wash cloth (especially if you use a white one). You do that a few times, until you don’t get any more on the washcloth, and you won’t see any more of it on the back of your tongue, either. If you smell the stuff on the washcloth, it will likely make you gag the first time. (Fortunately you can throw the washcloth in the washing machine.) I do this fairly often and I know it has got to be improving the smell of my breath.

    Edwin wrote on June 1st, 2012
  33. My wife works in the dental field and said there are two schools of thought on baking soda. Some argue it’s perfectly fine, others suggest it can be too abrasive on your tooth enamel. It probably doesn’t hurt occasionally, but should not be used regularly, or in lieu of toothpaste.

    Joel wrote on June 2nd, 2012
  34. I can’t believe nobody has mentioned celery! Just munch on a stalk of celery and you will be amazed at how quickly it eliminates bad breath. No idea why it works, but it does.

    Travis wrote on June 2nd, 2012
  35. On another LCHF though not a paleo/primal site the good doctor complained of his keto breath and discovered cutting back on protein solved his problem. Too much protein => glucogenesis (right word?) by the liver => ammonia as a by product => ammonia breath. That’s made me hesitate about trying for very low carb.

    Pauline wrote on June 15th, 2012
  36. This is odd… no problems like that for me, bushing, flossing and therabreath mouthwash work great for me….

    a wrote on January 13th, 2013

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