Hardly anyone relishes the idea of sitting in a dental chair with mouth wide open and the sound of a drill humming in the background. How healthy are your teeth and gums? Recent research suggests people who work out may be at higher risk for dental problems like cavities and loss of tooth enamel. Considering the numerous benefits a workout offers, chances are you’re not going to quit exercising to save money on dental bills. Still, taking precautions to reduce your risk for oral health problems when you exercise is a smart idea.
Exercise and Oral Health
Is there a link between exercise and oral health? A study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medical Science and Sports found endurance athletes are at greater risk for dental problems including dental caries and erosion of tooth enamel. The more the athletes trained, the higher the risk.
Another study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at the dental health of over 300 athletes participating in a variety of sports as part of the London 2012 Games. This report revealed a higher incidence of dental caries, erosion of tooth enamel and gum disease. Almost 30% reported their dental health issues were severe enough to interfere with the athletes’ training and quality of life.
Why the link between exercise and poor dental health? Some experts point to the sweetened, sports beverages athletes drink to stay hydrated and the sugary energy bars some athletes consume before a workout, but this isn’t the entire explanation. When researchers looked at the saliva of athletes after a workout, they discovered the composition of their saliva had changed. The athletes’ saliva had a more basic pH and they produced less of it. Dry mouth and an alkaline oral pH are both linked with an increased risk for dental caries and tartar build-up on teeth.
Having a dry mouth, in general, is a well-known risk factor for dental problems. People who take certain medications that cause dry mouth and are at higher risk for dental caries and gum disease. Why might this be? Saliva contains anti-bacterial substances that help keep bacteria linked with tooth decay in check. How many times have you experienced a dry, sticky mouth during or after a workout? “Cotton mouth” is more than a temporary discomfort: it puts you at greater risk for tooth decay and gum disease.
You don’t have to be a professional athlete to have dry mouth after a workout. The more time you spend working out, the greater your risk. Taking certain medications, especially blood pressure medications and medications used to treat allergies or mood disorders, can make the problem worse.
Keeping Dry Mouth and Dental Problems at Bay
How can you lower your risk for dental problems when you work out regularly? Stay hydrated during your workouts, but don’t use sugary drinks and sports beverages to meet your fluid requirements. You don’t need the added carbs unless you’re working out for longer than an hour. Plain, old water is a better choice.
Do you breathe through your mouth when you exercise? Many people do and aren’t even aware of it. Breathing with an open mouth worsens dry mouth. Make a conscious attempt to breathe through your mouth during a workout. Doing so will also help you avoid swallowing air, a common cause of digestive problems.
Check with your doctor and see if you’re taking medications that worsen dry mouth. It’s possible you could be switched to a medication that’s less likely to reduce saliva flow. Medications are a major cause of dry mouth.
Chew sugar-free gum sweetened with the xylitol, a sugar alcohol, before and after a workout. Gum with a sour flavor works best to maximize saliva flow. A number of studies suggest xylitol helps prevent dental caries, so much so that many dentists now recommend it. Chewing any kind of gum increases the flow of saliva and bathes your mouth in moisture. Unlike artificial sweeteners, xylitol is safe but keep it away from dogs. Dogs can’t metabolize xylitol the same way humans can and it can harm or even kill them.
Don’t forget the basics. Brush and floss twice a day and see your dentist regularly. Regular dental checks are important if you’re physically active.
The Bottom Line?
Regular exercise has a long list of health benefits. Plus, it improves body composition and helps with weight control. Take these steps to protect your teeth and gums, so you can keep your smile healthy.
Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2014 Jun 11.
Br J Sports Med. 2013 Nov;47(16):1054-8.
New York Times. “Is Exercise Bad for Your Teeth?”