Exercise, Nutrition, and Your Teeth

Exercise and a healthy diet are the cornerstones of a healthy lifestyle. But being healthy is about much more than simply looking slim and fit. Many very athletic adults and teenagers believe that their boosted metabolisms allow them to eat pretty much anything they want to so long as they continue to look slim and fit. But the consequences of a poorly constructed diet on the internal systems of your body, on your teeth, and even on your athletic performance, are the same regardless of how much you weigh or how healthy you may appear on the outside.

A diet filled with excessive amounts of highly refined sugar and grains, as well as foods and beverages that are high in acid, can have equally negative effects on the teeth and bodies of extremely active people as they do on sedentary individuals over time. And when it comes specifically to the teeth, very active individuals may actually be at a higher risk of tooth decay when consuming sugary or acidic foods and beverages during workouts in order to stay fueled and hydrated.

A quick burst of energy from a gel, sports beverage, or even a candy bar, may be exactly what you need to push you through the last leg of your athletic performance or training session, but that quick energy generally comes from a highly-concentrated combination of simple sugars and caffeine. Citric acid, and other acidic flavor enhancers, are often in the mix as well. Sugar and acid in the mouth create the perfect environment for cavity-causing bacteria to multiply and thrive. And introducing these elements into the mouth during intense exercise, when the saliva flow is often compromised, leaves your teeth even more vulnerable to these bacteria and accelerated tooth decay.

Certainly, there are many preventive measures that we can all take before, during, and after exercise to help protect our teeth and our bodies from the negative effects of the concentrated forms of sugar and acid we might consume during a workout. Our newest resource article, entitled Oral Health for Athletes, outlines several adjustments you can make the way you care for you teeth and fuel your body during a workout or race in order to better protect your teeth from accelerated decay.

For everyone, regardless of your level of athleticism, the first and best preventive measure you can take in protecting the health of your teeth and your body is to eat a well-balanced diet low in sugar and refined carbohydrates, and filled with plenty of whole fruits and vegetables, lean sources of protein, some whole grains, and moderate amounts of healthy fats. A strong metabolism should never be an excuse to regularly offer your body inferior sources of nutrition. No matter how athletic any of us may aspire to be, we should all be practicing healthy dietary choices every day and teaching our children that eating well isn’t just about protecting our health today or fueling an athletic performance next week – it’s about building and maintaining a healthy foundation for a vibrant and active lifestyle for years to come.

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Healthy Teeth Begin at Home

When I was in dental school, the professors used to tell us that we would see an end to tooth decay in the United States within our lifetime. Our understanding of the mechanism of decay along with the readily available tools and information about nutrition and home care techniques made us all believe that this could be true. Unfortunately, the reality has been quite the opposite.

If anything, tooth decay seems to be on the rise. It saddens me to say that more than a few of my young patients have come into the office in recent years with a sudden development of 10 or 12 cavities, or more. Processed, highly refined, and highly concentrated foods and beverages that contain large amounts of sugar, simple carbohydrates, and acid are certainly a huge part of the problem. But in every single case of extensive decay that I have seen in both children and adults, inadequate home care is always a factor.

I firmly believe that the most valuable teachings we can offer our children about healthy living are based in good nutrition and personal hygiene. And the hygiene of the mouth is a critical part of that picture. What happens in the mouth – what we eat, what we drink, and the bacteria that thrive as a result – can have a profound influence not just on our teeth, but on the health of the entire body.

I have not given up on the idea that tooth decay will someday be a thing of the past, but the key to that change starts at home. It’s never too late to improve the health of your mouth, and it’s never too early to start your kids on the right path to developing good oral hygiene habits. This month, I’ve created a resource specifically for parents to help you guide your children through each stage of their dental development at home. It is my hope that this information will help your children develop habits that will allow them to keep their teeth for a lifetime and get us all one step closer to the end to tooth decay.

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does flossing matter?

I really try not to give the dreaded “flossing lecture.” I really do. I believe that people should have control over their own health and if they choose not to do something, that is their prerogative.

But the more I read about the connections between gum disease and other chronic health conditions, the harder it is to keep quiet. I don’t pretend that flossing will change the world, but it might change your health.

Shortly after I began working in a dental office in the early 1970s, I discovered that my father had advanced periodontal disease. He was seeing a dentist whose only advice was “I am going to have to make you dentures in six more months.” The dentist I worked for at the time believed in prevention to his core, and it was from him that I first learned about proper home care. When I next visited my father, I taught him everything I had learned. The results were astounding, and even his dentist couldn’t believe the improvement. My father, of course, found a new dentist who also shared a preventive philosophy. And since that time, he has only lost two more teeth. One was lost because of decay on the roots (stayed tuned for more on that), and the other had tipped severely from losing the tooth in front of it due to his periodontal disease years ago.

I continue to be surprised by the number of new patients I meet who haven’t been properly taught to care for their teeth. They may have been told to brush and floss, but these are skills that must be learned and practiced. Telling simply isn’t enough. This month we have posted a brushing and flossing resource article specifically designed to teach you these skills. Even if you have been brushing and flossing regularly for years, I urge you to review this article. I cannot tell you how many people brush and floss regularly with the best of intentions, only to discover that their efforts are ineffective because of improper technique.

Obviously, the home care techniques we recommend are designed to aid in the prevention of decay and periodontal disease. But we continue to learn that controlling oral bacteria may play a role in the prevention of so much more. Recently, I read an article in the Journal of Periodontology that details research which demonstrates that many respiratory diseases may have their beginnings in the aspiration of oral bacteria and other organisms into the lower respiratory tract. Pneumonia can originate from the mouth and inflammation in the mouth seems to exacerbate COPD.

The research messages are becoming clear: To stay healthier, you must reduce the bacterial load in the mouth as much as you can. And flossing and brushing are the best first defense in this effort to control bacterial growth. You owe it to yourself to take the time every day to thoroughly clean your mouth.

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