Is Sugar Bad for Your Teeth?By Ryan Wood, DMD
In a word, yes. There’s a reason why your mom was always on to you about eating too much sugar rotting your teeth – because that’s exactly what happens. Sugar and tooth decay go hand in hand. In fact, it can do more than affect just your teeth; excess sugar is bad for your entire oral health.
That does not mean that you should go sugar-free. It just means that you need to be smart about how much sugar you consume – and what to do to mitigate sugar when you do eat or drink it.
To better understand why and how let’s look at what sugar does to your mouth.
How Does Sugar Affect Your Oral Health?
The effects of sugar on your oral health by encouraging the growth of bad bacteria. This growth also produces byproducts that negatively affect your mouth. In short, excess consumption of sugar (eating and/or drinking) can lead to:
Commonly known as “cavities” or (less so) “dental caries,” tooth decay is often a direct result of too much sugar in your diet.
That’s because sugar, when left on the surface of your teeth, is what the bacteria already present in your mouth love to eat (the harmful bacteria live in the plaque film that constantly forms on your teeth). And when that bacterium eats sugar it secretes acids that remain on your teeth.
Cavities/dental caries occur when acid produced in the mouth attacks the enamel and dentine of the teeth. The continued presence of acid eats holes into the teeth or tooth, undermining the structure of the teeth or tooth. Dental decay starts by eroding the tooth enamel, but, left untreated, acids eventually eat all the way into the nerve and root of teeth, causing abscesses and effectively killing the teeth.
So, the risk of tooth decay and cavities directly increases due to sugar on teeth.
The acids produced by bacteria eating sugar do not just happen on the teeth, however. It can also happen anywhere inside the mouth – including the gums.
Instead of eating away at a tooth, the acid produced when bacteria digest sugar on your gums goes to work underneath the surface, eventually leading to gingivitis – the first stage of gum disease.
Sugary drinks are especially dangerous, as they can penetrate any crevice and are often more constantly consumed than sugary foods (sports drinks, colas, etc.).
Learn the Warning Signs of Tooth Decay and Gum Disease
To protect against tooth decay and/or gum disease, you should always be on the lookout for these telltale signs:
- Tooth sensitivity – This is generally the first sign of tooth decay. Pay attention when you’re eating or drinking hot or cold foods/beverages for the first sensations.
- Toothache – Toothaches can either be constant or short and sharp, but they are a major indicator of decay.
- Dark spots – If you see any grey, brown or black spots appearing on your teeth, that’s likely decay occurring.
- Bad breath – It may be embarrassing, but it’s better to know, so you can do something about it.
- Unusual/bad tastes – If you experience this consistently, it’s a sign of decay of the teeth and/or gums.
- Inflamed gums – Red, puffy gums – especially along the teeth – are the signs of early-stage gum disease.
- Bleeding gums – If you brush with a soft bristle toothbrush and still experience bleeding gums it’s a sign of gum disease.
As gum and tooth decay progresses you may endure severe cavities and abscesses, as well as loose teeth. In fact, during late-stage periodontal disease, the connective tissue that holds the teeth in place actually breaks down. And even bones, gums and other tissues are destroyed.
Ways Your Mouth Protects Against Tooth Decay
The good news is that your mouth has its own defense system against tooth decay and gum disease. And if you combine these factors with good oral health habits you should be able to avoid real problems.
It’s actually fairly impressive what the human mouth does for itself – if not overwhelmed by outside dangers – like excess sugar consumption.
The first defense mechanism your mouth has against excess bacteria and acids is saliva.
Your saliva has many jobs (including early stage digestion) but one of its most important is to wash sugar out of your mouth and into your digestive tract. It also stops acid from causing damage and fights bacteria.
It also delivers minerals to your teeth for a process called remineralization.
When saliva washes over your teeth it leaves calcium and phosphate on the surface of the teeth. Your body then adds those strengthening elements to the enamel on your teeth – strengthening the protective outer layer of your teeth. The minerals are formed together to produce a compound called hydroxyapatite – a building block of teeth.
This course directly counters the process of demineralization, which is what happens every time you eat and drink and the bacteria inside your mouth feed and produce acid.
Remineralization is a key process to help prevent tooth decay.
Ways to Protect Your Teeth
Your body has natural defenses to help protect your teeth – but those mechanisms need assistance to assure optimal oral health. That’s where you come in.
There are plenty of simple and consistent things you can do to help protect your teeth and gums and significantly decrease the chances you will experience decay or disease. These steps feature some basic dental care, as well as address the foods you eat and include:
- Brushing and flossing twice a day
- Avoiding prolonged sugar contact
- Consuming less sugar
- Eating a healthier diet
- Yearly dental cleanings and check-ups
It may sound remedial, but it’s true – and we cannot say this enough – that you should brush twice a day, ideally 30 minutes after eating (this allows enamel, which softens from acid during eating, to re-harden and not get brushed away). This is the basics of oral hygiene, and yet it is still the No. 1 thing a dentist will tell you.
Brushing also removes plaque, a film of bacteria that clings to the teeth.
The correct brushing technique is as follows:
- Use a soft bristle brush that you replace every 3-4 months (soft bristles won’t potentially damage tooth enamel).
- Use a pea-sized dab of fluoride toothpaste.
- Place the toothbrush against the teeth at a 45-degree angle up to the gum line.
- Move the brush across your teeth in a small, circular motion. Do this with each tooth. Keep the tips of the bristles against the gum line. Avoid pressing. Let the bristles reach into spaces between teeth.
- To clean the inside of the bottom front teeth, angle the head in an up-and-down position toward the bottom inside of the mouth and move the toothbrush in a small circle.
- For the inside of the top front teeth, angle the brush in an up-and-down position with the tip of the head pointing toward the roof of the mouth. Move the toothbrush in a small circle.
- Gently brush your tongue, from the back of your tongue forward, to remove bacteria and bad breath. Do not scrub.
- Follow this process for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Rinse your mouth with water.
You can also dry brush during the day (brush without toothpaste).
Avoid Prolonged Sugar Contact
If you do eat or drink sugary substances, you can give your mouth a boost by immediately rinsing with or drinking tap water. Tap water not only cleans away food particles or sugars that may otherwise stick to the inside of your mouth and promote decay/disease, it also acts to flush bacteria and acid.
Tap water in many municipalities also has fluoride added to it, which is a substance that helps protect teeth.
Chew Something if You Can’t Brush
Ideally, you should be able to brush your teeth 30 minutes after eating, but, if you cannot, then chewing something – especially xylitol gum, although sugar-free gum is OK as well – can help clean your teeth and gums and prevent tooth decay.
Not only does the gum stick to and pull away foods and sugars, it also promotes saliva production, which also helps clean your teeth.
Xylitol is a natural sugar alcohol found in plants, including many fruits and vegetables. It has a sweet taste and is often used as a sugar substitute. Unlike sugar, however, xylitol does not cause tooth decay. In fact, it even reduces levels of decay-causing bacteria in saliva and also acts against some bacteria that cause ear infections.
Control Your Sugar Intake
We know this is tough — especially if you or a member of your family has a sweet tooth. But one of the best things you can do for your dental health is to cut back on and try to avoid consuming sugar and the sugars in beverages as much as possible.
You should especially avoid sticky sugary foods, such as gummy candies, sugary gum, brittle, etc. The same goes for high sugar drinks like colas and sports drinks — the sugars inside drinks are through the roof.
You can find sugar-free or reduced sugar versions of each food — even sweets — and sugary drink, and – while your kids may object – you can rest assured that you’re making the right choice by limiting sugar intake and by choosing a healthier diet.
Protect Your Smile
If you’re concerned about sugars and tooth decay, or perhaps you see something you see in your mouth – whether that be a dark spot on a tooth, sensitive gums, or beyond – the caring team at BGW is here to help you protect your smile.
Our staff will fully evaluate your oral health via the most cutting-edge methods available in all three of our locations throughout north Georgia. And whatever your need, we will tailor-make your oral care to suit your specific situation. We can also help you determine what foods might best suit your situation, as well as what food to avoid, and dispel any myths about sugar.