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

TAGS:  Grok, oral health

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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52 thoughts on “Caveman Breath”

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  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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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?

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

  7. 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!

  8. 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!

  9. 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!

  10. 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^^.

  11. 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.


  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. “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.


  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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!

  19. 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.

  20. 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:

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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?

    1. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. The tongue scraper was exactly what I was going to suggest! (Thinking you’ll be pleasantly surprised!)

  28. Too bad Spruce Gum is not sold commercially any more. Antiseptic, good cleaning properties, and VERY primal. (YouTube has some DIY videos)

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. This is odd… no problems like that for me, bushing, flossing and therabreath mouthwash work great for me….

  34. 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.

    1. 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.


  35. 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.

    1. 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

      1. 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!

    2. 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.

    1. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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!

  39. 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.

  40. 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.