Most of us were probably told from a young age that sugar is bad for your teeth, and it was pretty much left at that. Many have never received a full explanation of what really happens to our teeth when we consume sugar or carbohydrates. The good news is that there are “good” and “bad” ways to consume these foods, and there are ways to help protect against tooth decay and keep a happy healthy mouth.
Tooth decay or “cavities” occur when bacteria in the oral cavity are given sugars or carbohydrates to consume. They then use this fuel to produce acid, which decreases the overall pH of the mouth. At the lower pH levels, the teeth start to dissolve. Luckily, within a few minutes, our wonderful saliva works to bring the pH back to normal, consequently reversing the damage that had just been done. This is a continual process that happens every time we eat sugars or carbohydrates.
As long as the pH returns to normal in a short period of time, no permanent damage is done. Problems occur when the pH is allowed to stay low for an extended period of time.
Think about taking a drink of soda, the pH in the mouth is lowered. Then just as the saliva is bringing the pH back to normal, you take another sip. The pH now stays at this point where the teeth are being attacked. This happens over and over with every sip and this is the type of attack that in the long run can lead to permanent damage like cavities. I like to make the simplified comparison that if I gave you 5 minutes to eat an entire cake or you sipped a cup of coffee with a spoonful of sugar in it over the course of an hour, there is no contest. The coffee is much more destructive to your teeth. If we realize this connection, we can be more aware that it’s the way we eat our foods rather than the amount that can help us prevent tooth decay.
On the other side, there are certain foods we can also eat that don’t allow the pH in the mouth to drop and can even be protective against tooth decay. Cheeses and meats are always great options. Not only do they not give the bacteria the fuel they need to lower the pH in the mouth, but eating stimulates salivary flow, which helps maintain the pH at a normal level. Xylitol, a natural sugar replacement found in many sugar-free gums and candies, is also a great placeholder when you need that sweet fix. Not only it is not consumed by the bacteria, but studies show its presence actually helps prevent tooth decay.
I always tell my patients that I don’t expect them to give up sweets or carbohydrates entirely to help prevent tooth decay, but I do expect them to consume them in a way that limits damage to their teeth. In the end, simply being a little more cognizant of what and how we are consuming, our food intake can result in a happy healthy mouth leading to fewer trips to the dentist, something I’m sure we can all agree is a good thing.
Dr. Baumann is with Palm Desert Smiles and can be reached at (760) 568.3602.