Sugar feeds the bacteria in our mouths, giving them the energy they need to breed and form the sticky plaque colonies that accumulates on tooth surfaces. Because plaque forms repeatedly over teeth throughout the day, it continues to grow in size making it difficult for saliva to simply wash it away. This is why we need to physically remove it with the assistance of a toothbrush and floss aids.
Believe it or not, sugar is actually not the cause of tooth decay – acid is! Sugar does play a major role, however, in the development of cavities!
The Battle is Real
Just like humans eliminate waste from their bodies, so do bacteria. Anything we take into our bodies that isn’t used, stored or no longer needed is removed from the body. We call this waste or a by- product. After the bacteria has used sugar for energy and to help them stick together and onto tooth surfaces, they release their waste. This waste contains an acid that is chemically corrosive enough to break open the enamel rods that make up the basic building structure of enamel. Inside these rods are the minerals that give enamel it’s strength. As the acids dissolve these rods, the minerals leech out and the affected surface of the tooth becomes soft when this dissolving action is taking place. We call this activity an “acid attack” or demineralisation process.
Every time you take sugar into your mouth, an acid attack occurs. The number of acid attacks depends on how often you consume sugar – and let’s face it – sugar is in everything nowadays!
The Attacks in our Body
As with most invasive or destructive actions that take place in the body, there is a counter response to balance out and reverse this damage. One if the most important responses comes by way of saliva.
Saliva’s defensive action is simply amazing and it also contains minerals. As acid demineralizes our teeth, saliva is there to repair or “remineralize” the damages surfaces. It’s a constant battle that takes place in our mouth all day, everyday, all of our lives. Damage then repair. The same battles happen all throughout our bodies.
Saliva also helps in the fight against cavities by:
- restoring the acidity of the mouth to a healthier, neutral pH-level
- washing foods and debris away from teeth and
- helping to dilute and eliminate sugars left in your mouth after swallowing
- helping to prevent the breakdown of the hard parts of the teeth
- replacing minerals that have “leeched out” of the teeth during the acid attack process.
- aids the digestion process by breaking down starches and fats we eat
- keeping mouth tissues moist
The most important thing to remember is that after the saliva has neutralized and cleared the enemy as best it can, it now must begin the rebuilding process by repairing the damage caused by the acid erosion. It can take up to 4-5 hours to harden the tooth surfaces soften by acid.
4-5 Hours = Hunger
Hmmmm, that sounds familiar. What else, coincidentally, takes 4-5 hours? Hunger! That’s right. Your body is designed to EAT: eat, absorb, throw then be ready to do it all again at the next meal. I know what you’re thinking – 4 to 5 hours?
Eating and drinking all day long interferes with the healing nature of Saliva.
Unfortunately, many of us have developed habits that thwart our saliva’s valiant efforts! We have become grazers. We eat all day long. We sip drinks, we snack, and we justify our habits because about 20 years ago we were told that a snack in between meals will speed up metabolism and will eliminate over eating. What really happened though? We ignored the part that said “little, healthy choice” and starting eating/drinking often – all throughout the day.
Did you know that there never used to be snacks at school recess time? True! Want to hear how parents describe their children’s average day of eating?
A child’s average day looks like this:
Meal 1: Morning breakfast
Meal 2: Morning recess snack
Meal 3: Lunch
Meal 4: Afternoon recess snack
Meal 5: After school snack
Meal 6: Dinner
Meal 7: Evening or before bed snack
Seven (7) separate food intakes PLUS any drinking (other than water) in between! And have no doubt, there’s likely sugar consumed at every single meal. Natural occurring sugars in our fruits and vegetables and all the added sugar in out processed and baked foods. The food industry has ensured that sugar is used as a filler and taste enhancer in most processed foods.
Making Better Choices
But, the world is waking up. We are becoming wiser in our foods choices and becoming more educated at label reading. There ARE food choices that we can make that are dentally healthier alternatives to processed food that are high in sugars and preservatives:
- Fibrous Whole fruits are vegetables – Choosing ones that are whole and crisp help to naturally cleanse foods and plaque away from the teeth and surrounding tissues not only by increasing saliva production, but also by way of their fibrous, mechanical cleansing actions. Also these kinds of foods also contain antioxidant vitamins, such as Vit C and other nutrients that help protect tissues in the mouth from cell damage and bacterial infection.
- Cheese: Cheese (another saliva producer) also contains calcium and phosphates to help rebuild enamel, and releases a protein casein that can coat teeth in a layer of film to protect the hard tooth surfaces during acid attacks.
- Sugarless chewing gum – Today, we have a variety of chewing gum choices and those that contain Xylitol or Recaldent not only stimulates salivary production and prevent germs from sticking to teeth. Recaldent, contains Xylitol and enables remineralisation of teeth by replacing enamel compounds lost during acid attacks.
- Water – Staying hydrated with water in between meals is essential in allowing you to stay hydrated while still allowing the 4-5 hour time in between meals that is so critical for the repairing of hard tooth structures. So, making water your beverage of choice is a wise choice indeed!
- Fresh cranberries – New studies are researching the role that cranberries may play in interrupting the bonding of oral bacteria before they can form damaging plaque. So stayed tuned about cranberries.
We cannot emphasis enough about how important the quality and quantity of your saliva is for the health of your teeth. While teeth are under attack from bacterial and food acids on a daily basis, the good news is that saliva can reverse this damage through it’s natural remineralization process – replacing minerals and strengthening the tooth again.
What Can You Do?
Because we are all at risk of developing tooth cavities because of the bacteria in our mouths,watching what we eat and how often is just as critical, if not more, than taking good care of your teeth by practicing good oral hygiene. You can help your body’s natural cavity-fighting capabilities by paying close attention to:
- Frequency – Space you meals out. Eliminate, or at least reduce, snacking in your daily diet. If you like a dessert now and again, eat it with your meal. Choosing nutritious food, rather than foods high in sugar, acids and stickiness are also important.
- Oral Hygiene – Brush your teeth at the very least, 2 times/day. Wait 30 minutes after eating to brush, but if you can’t get to a toothbrush then rinse with water vigorously after a meals and rinse with an antibacterial mouthwash.
- Professional Care – Seeing your dentist regularly is important so that the health of teeth can be monitored and small signs of disease or wear can be detected and repaired before they become bigger problems. Your dentist/hygienist may recommend that you come in more frequently for exams and cleanings based on your own individual level of oral health, habits and medical conditions.
- Dry Mouth – The quality and quantity of your saliva is important. Many things can impair saliva production such as medical conditions, medications, weather, stress, exercise etc. and result in a drier mouth environment than normal. Your teeth and mouth tissues can suffer during these times of persistent dry mouth and this natural loss of moist protection can cause cavities, mouth sores, gingivitis, burning tissues and bad breath. Your dentist, family doctor and even your pharmacist can help you find relief, if not even, a solution to your dry mouth.
- Habits – There are many habits that can affect our oral health:
- tobacco products
- chewing ice cubes
- biting your nails
- using your teeth as tools
- brushing your teeth and gums too hard
- exposure of teeth to stomach acids eg. Acid reflux, bulimia
- exposure to teeth to the chemicals and chlorine in swimming pool water
The Heart and Stroke Foundation, Diabetes Canada and the Childhood Obesity Foundation are all on board with the World Health Organization recommendations and are urging Canadians to reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake. To read the whole report follow this link: WHO Sugar Recommendations
So although sugar doesn’t directly cause tooth decay, it IS part of a process that so you still have to rethink your food choices. Although, there are many different types of germs in the mouth, eliminating the bacteria that love to eat and metabolize the sugars we eat is impossible. You can introduce the habits above to help reduce the numbers of these kinds of bacteria in the mouth and help to slow down their activity, but you can never get rid of them.
Habits are hard to change, but practicing a healthy lifestyle are the best ways to take care of your teeth and gums and get the upper hand in the battle against tooth decay.