Countless studies have shown exercise has a ton of benefits for everything from cardiovascular health to weight management to mood improvement — but could your workout be sabotaging your teeth?
In a recent study, researchers looked at 35 triathletes and 35 non-exercisers to determine the impact of endurance training on oral health factors like tooth erosion and cavities. They found that athletes showed an increased risk for tooth problems, including a significant correlation between cavity prevalence and cumulative weekly training time.
Obviously, there are major limitations to the study, since the sample size of individuals was very small. But researchers noted the results should be something of a heads up and people who exercise may want to employ more preventative measures for protecting their teeth.
Here are some reasons athletes might be increasing their oral health risks and tactics for better prevention:
Whether you’re on the treadmill, hitting the weight bench or playing a team sport, it’s common to breathe with your mouth open. While that’s helpful for getting more oxygen, it can temporarily make your mouth drier than usual. When that happens, it puts you at significantly higher risk for tooth decay and oral infections, since bacteria can’t be flushed from your mouth as effectively.
This can be especially true if you’re on medications that have dry mouth as a side effect, says Dr. Harold Katz, dentist and founder of The California Breath Clinics. For example, some antidepressants inhibit uptake of a molecule that prevents a specific neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, from reaching receptors in your salivary glands. The result, says Katz, is total “cottonmouth.”
With blood pressure medications like beta blockers, diuretics and calcium channel blockers, your body loses water in general because sodium levels in your kidneys are reduced. Even antihistamines can be drying.
The solution is simple: Drink more water. You’re likely already trying to stay hydrated while working out, and this gives you one more reason to keep sipping. Although water doesn’t contain the enzymes and minerals saliva does, it’s a good temporary measure for flushing out bacteria.
READ MORE > 6 WAYS TO POWER YOUR HYDRATION FOR PERFORMANCE
SPORTS BEVERAGES AND GELS
In the recent study, the triathletes were asked about their intake of sports drinks, with researchers suspecting a possible connection between how much was consumed and the effect on oral health. The researchers aren’t alone in pondering that potential effect.
Carefree Dental, a dental network provider, noted recently that there are rising rates of dental problems in active people — ranging from preschoolers to seniors — and that sports drinks can cause three times more damage to teeth than soda. That may be because sports drinks and carbohydrate gels adhere to the teeth more firmly than soda and when it’s not rinsed or brushed promptly, it can trap oral bacteria.
Another factor is acidity. Your tooth enamel is weakened by acids that have a pH level that’s lower than 5.5 and many sports drinks — particularly those filled with citric acid — have a pH between 2.4 and 4.5.
Dry mouth comes into play here, too, because with less saliva, you’ll likely have a harder time clearing the sugary substances from your teeth.
Although carrying a toothbrush and toothpaste to the gym seems like a great idea, it’s not always practical. Also, Carefree Dental advises that you wait at least 30 minutes after consuming a sports drink to brush anyway, because it’s better for you to regain saliva instead.
But there are a few items to throw in your bag that can be helpful, according to Dr. Tripti Meysman, founder of the Minneapolis-based CityTooth dentistry practice. Here’s what she recommends:
- Yogurt: The probiotic cultures in yogurt — as unsweetened as possible — compete with the bacteria in your mouth, and the probiotics often win out. Also, the naturally occurring calcium and phosphate in yogurt can help remineralize the tooth surface.
- Sugar-free gum: This is an old standby when it comes to freshening your breath, but it can also be useful for increasing saliva production, a crucial part of better oral health.
- Fruit: Although fruit has natural sugars, they can still inhibit the bacteria activity in your mouth. For example, apples have polyphenols, which can suppress bacteria and help eliminate sulfur compounds in the mouth.
No matter what tactic you take, keep your teeth in mind when you make your exercise plan. Remember: It’s not an excuse to skip the gym or your workout, but a reminder to train smarter.