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. Coffee! Watch that coffee. Everytime I’ve migrated down in carbs, or transitioned back into higher fat / more meat, this diet breath ensues. I’m sure it’s a combination of many things, but one thing I’ve isolated as a strong factor is coffee (or my wife has isolated for me :-/ ).

    Floss well, and cut out the coffee for a few days. It takes a couple of days for the coffee breath to simmer down in my experience.

    Chad wrote on November 17th, 2013
    • Wow, that makes sense. I went low-carb last year and had no problems with bad breath. Then I fell off the wagon for a while, and can’t figure out why I’m having bad breath this time.

      Your comment reminds me that last time I quit coffee just before I went low-carb. This time I’m still drinking coffee. Maybe that’s the problem.


      Julia wrote on February 27th, 2014
  2. Here’s a conversation I have with my wife yesterday.

    Wife: your breath smells….weird..

    Me: Like what??

    Wife: You don’t want to know…

    Me: Does it smell like sh*t?

    Wife: Worse…

    My wife is very polite, so my breath must be horrifying haha. I’ll have to get pretty serious sorting this out.

    Rock wrote on February 12th, 2014
    • Did you get if figured out? Because my boyfriend’s breath smells like sh*t and he is clueless about it. Gum does not work. It has been since going primal

      Reg wrote on May 9th, 2014
      • I stand by my coffee comment above. I would also note that cheese, or rich dairy by itself, not with any other food, has been a culprit also.

        In other news, stand by your man ;p I’m down 30+ pounds, my blood pressure is amazing, and my wife goes bananas when we’re shedding clothes…so it’s worth finding the one or two foods that are triggering wretched breath, removing those, but keeping with the program.

        Good luck!

        Chad wrote on May 9th, 2014
    • My brother-in-law had a super bad breath like that described above; it turned out to be a sinus infection. With that fixed, no more complaints.

      He has been on a low carb “paleo” diet for over a year (successfully remedied his gout per Marks web advice!) but with lots of veg’s so I’m not sure if he’s in ketosis.

      Bad breath sometimes comes from the blood purifying function of the lungs too hence the persistence of some odors (garlic, onion, etc…) even after oral cleansing.

      Pete wrote on July 13th, 2014
  3. Neem and products made with it are supposed to be awesome. I have not tried it yet but it is on the list!

    Craig wrote on February 12th, 2014
  4. What if bad breath is caused by sinus problems?

    Carrie wrote on April 24th, 2014
    • The case mentioned just above was resolved by a few repeated uses of his neti pot and, I think, a very mild solution of hydrogen peroxide and water.

      He saw his doctor first.

      Pete wrote on July 13th, 2014
  5. I’ve never noticed bad breath while primal. Neither has my wife and she isn’t shy in that regard. In fact I’d say that my breath is better now that I am primal. I’ve found that if you keep to the tri-fecta of vitamins A, K2, and D3, and if you floss you will be A-OKAY. I use a baby toothpaste called Babyganics, but I’m considering just plain baking soda since babyganics has xylitol and stevia.

    C L Deards wrote on June 9th, 2014
  6. In regards to the issue of “keto breath”. It seems that this is when someone is adapting to a ketogenic diet. I used to experience this but after a month or so it disappeared and I eat less carbs now than when I first had it. My wife noticed it at first but now its fine. Have heard a number of people mention that this is temporary and goes away. Just wanted to point this out as there seems to be a myth that low carb diets will permanently give you bad breath which is simply not the case.

    Abu Sumayah wrote on July 10th, 2015
  7. From last summer of 2015 to present day I’ve been trying to figure out whats the problem of my breath and I think it may be this, my diet. I cut down on eating things that would stink up my breath and stopped eating junk food and such. I did this for a week or so and i noticed my mouth felt different. Then i thought i could go back to my old diet but no, i noticed my bad breath coming back. Ive been to my doctor and i had no tonsil stones or sinus infection or anything. i feel as if he doesnt even want to really help me because bad breath is not something really measurable by the doctor i guess. Dentist says teeth are fine and no cavities. This gets so frustrating to me.. believe me, bad breath to me goes a longgggg way.. especially when youre trying to talk to a girl or anyone really. Btw im only 18 and a high school senior. It just gets me frustrated when i see so many other guys who dont suffer from bad breath and can talk all they want. I have to keep my distance when talking to people. But i think this may be the sourion, finding the perfect diet. Its taking so long for me to just figure this out because i have to experiment all the time and i usually rely on smelling my own breath by licking my arm and smelling it. This has got to be solved somehow… im glad there are so many articles like this though because it really helps to know what others have experienced through trying to get rid of there bad breath. Thank you and any advice from anyone would be appreciated!

    WZ wrote on January 26th, 2016
  8. I got to this page while googling ” is no carb diet a cure for bad breath” and I am surprised by the results I am finding.

    Mine is the opposite . I have stinky breath all my life even though I scrape my tongue , floss and brush 4 times a day. Recently I have been taking antibiotics quite a bit and a friend suggested I give up carb and sugar to avoid candida overgrowth in my gut . A couple of days without out carb or sugar my stinky breath disappeared . A couple of days I went to bed without brushing just to check and no bad breath. This was a happy side effect of No carb No sugar diet for me . The only problem with the no carb no sugar diet is I am hungry all the time even after having a decent protein meal.

    Tekalign wrote on May 21st, 2016
  9. Forgot to mention that I was also having flatulence problem. I Was waking up at night with gas pain and was passing gas like crazy .
    No more waking up with gas pain and am no longer an old fart after giving up carb and sugar. My concern is I can live without sugar but with the constant hunger I don’t know how long I will be able to go without carb.

    Tekalign wrote on May 21st, 2016

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