Few doctors note the scent of a patient's breath during physical exams, but I'm a I firm believer in this practice. Halitosis (bad breath) can provide several useful diagnostic clues. Although most people associate bad breath with poor oral hygiene, the more common cause is infection-such as a cold, tonsillitis or allergic congestion. Diets that are high in sugar and/or fat also lead to bad breath because these foods trigger indigestion, which results in the undigested food becoming putrified.

Breath odor is due, in part, to what is happening in our lungs.

Example: For at least 24 hours after we eat garlic, our lungs excrete methyl mercaptan, the compound that causes garlic's odor. Brushing your teeth or gargling will temporarily mask the scent in your mouth, but it doesn't change the odor that's exhaled from your lungs.

If you think you have halitosis, ask your spouse or a close friend to smell your breath. If the report is bad, consider these suggestions for the following common causes...

Allergies or colds. In addition to whatever treatment you choose for your allergy or cold, gargle with a solution combining saline and essential oils of eucalyptus and thyme. The essential oils not only clear away mucus and freshen breath, but they also act as an antiseptic to kill germs. My favorite gargling solution is Alka-Thyme, which is available at health-food stores or can be purchased from Heritage Products, 800-862-2923, utow.caycecures.com. For best results, gargle for 60 seconds twice a day until your cold or allergy symptoms are gone.

Tonsillitis. If you have enlarged tonsils, add fenugreek tea to your daily regimen. Fenugreek reduces swelling and inflammation in the tonsils and lymphatic system, eventually eliminating bad breath. Use 1 teaspoon of fenugreek seeds per cup of water. Gently simmer for 10 minutes, then strain and drink 16 ounces each day. If your tonsils remain enlarged for more than one week, see your doctor. You may have a bacterial infection.

Indigestion. Coffee not only leaves a bitter residue in the mouth, but also interferes with digestion. Both of these problems lead to bad breath. That's why I prefer peppermint, spearmint or chamomile tea. These herbs freshen the mouth, enhance digestion and reduce gas.

If you're consuming a lot of sugar and/or fat, cut back on both. Substitute fresh fruit for sweets, eat vegetables and green salads, and drink eight glasses of water daily to improve your breath. Culinary herbs can also help. Carry dill, fennel or anise seeds with you instead of breath mints. Chew one-half teaspoon of one of the seeds.

The volatile oils in these seeds aid digestion and improve breath without the sugars and chemicals found in breath mints.

If these suggestions don't help, see your doctor. You may have a dental infection or a health problem, such as diabetes or liver or kidney failure, that natural bad breath remedies simply can't cure.

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