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On Jaw Development

Preparing for my double jaw surgery due to sleep apnea caused by structural issues. Exploring evolutionary, dietary influences on jaw development and preventive measures.

Originally published on Trading and Meditating, May 29 2024

In just over one month I will be getting double orthognathic jaw surgery. The decision comes after years of deliberation. Roughly 6 years ago I noticed I was waking up exhausted and irritable multiple days per week. I had always experienced issues with my sleep – I’ve snored since I was a child – but this once semi-rare occurrence was becoming a more permanent fixture in my life. After doing a sleep study, I was told I showed signs of sleep apnea and to see a specialist. The ENT I then saw a week later informed me that I was likely experiencing obstructive sleep apnea due to the poor development of my upper respiratory tract. There were several structural issues. A deviated septum and a narrow nasal cavity housed slightly inflamed turbinates, causing significant blockage. This narrowness extended all the way below my throat, allowing the soft tissue there to collapse on my airway when sleeping. The issue was further compounded by a slight crossbite I had never noticed. “Don’t worry,” I was told, “This is a common issue.” Was this true? And if so, why do no other mammals seem to share this pathology? I decided to do a deep dive on my own.

The evidence found in the skeletal remains of ancient hunter-gatherer societies indicates that early humans had well-aligned teeth and robust jaw structures. Around 12,000 years ago, the advent of the agricultural revolution, there was a notable shift. As humans transitioned from a diet of varied wild foods to one dominated by domesticated grains, their dental and skeletal health began to decline. There are two leading theories on why this occurred: one suggests that the softer, more processed agricultural diet is to blame, while the other attributes the changes to nutritional deficiencies. In reality, the answer is a mixture of the two.

According to Jaws authors Sandra Kahn and Paul Ehrlich, the shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural one significantly reduced the need for robust chewing, leading to the emergence of underdeveloped jaw muscles, malformed mandibles, and narrow maxillas. This change caused dental crowding and misalignment. The jaw no longer grew large enough to accommodate all the teeth properly. Weston Price looked at the problem from a different angle, choosing to focus on the nutritional deficiencies associated with a less varied diet. He observed that traditional diets, rich in vitamins and minerals, supported better dental and overall health. Price’s research indicated that the transition to an agricultural diet, which lacked the essential nutrients found in a hunter-gatherer diet, contributed to malformation and dental decay.

So what do we do with this information? Prevention seems the obvious answer. To ensure others do not run into these problems, there are several proactive measures that can be taken. One approach is adopting a paleo diet, which is high in micronutrients and generally requires a far greater degree of chewing than processed foods. Additionally, educating children on proper nasal breathing and tongue posture is crucial. Both help in the natural development of the jaw and teeth alignment. Encouraging the use of sugar-free gum, such as PUR, can also be beneficial. Chewing gum increases the time spent chewing, which helps to strengthen jaw muscles. These measures collectively can offer mitigation in humans when it comes to jaw development issues.