Did you know that you can ruin your teeth with sugar-free drinks? As a dental hygienist who has practiced for over 10 years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met smart, well-meaning patients who thought they were making healthy, responsible beverage choices, only to know they were promoting oral disease.
This reminds me of a new patient from several years ago. Chris came to our clinic wanting a check-up and a cleaning. He mentioned dark spots on some of his front teeth, but other than that, he had no qualms. He was 22 years old with no health issues, and he described his daily oral care routine as brushing twice daily with an electric toothbrush, using fluoride toothpaste, and flossing most nights.
After an X-ray and a thorough examination, the doctor and I discovered tooth decay. Not just a few small cavities; Chris had large areas of decay affecting all 28 of his teeth! The doctor and I were in disbelief because we did not expect to find such an extent of disease in such a healthy young person. While the doctor focused on creating a restorative plan for active decay, I focused on figuring out the cause of Chris’ decay so I could design a preventative plan for him.
When I asked about his diet, Chris confidently said, “I don’t eat sweets. I rarely eat sweets, and I’m not a fan of sweets.” I explained that many people forget that drinks are part of their diet, and I asked him what he drinks during a typical day. He said calmly, “Well, I love diet soda. I’ve been working on reducing the amount I drink, but I usually eat six to eight cans a day. I used to drink regular soda, but I switched to diet because I know the sugar-free version is healthy and won’t It affects my teeth, doesn’t it?”
What are acidic drinks and foods?
Many people have basic knowledge of how diet affects oral health, but are unaware of the risks beyond sugar. But sugar isn’t the only nutritional concern dental professionals face when it comes to the risk of tooth decay. While most of us know that sugar feeds the bacteria that cause cavities in the mouth, many are surprised that sugar itself does not cause damage to the teeth. Science shows that once sugar (carbs) is consumed, the oral bacteria process it as their own fuel and release acidic waste after the sugar has served its purpose.1 It is this acidic waste that forms cavities or holes in the tooth structure.
If the bacterial acid from eating sugar can cause tooth decay, imagine the amount of damage that can be done with additional acids. Dietary acids come in many forms, from dairy products to meats to grains. Our bodies need these acids to function optimally, but like many things, it is possible to overdo it. Eating an acid-rich diet causes the environment in the mouth to become acidic as well.
You may remember learning about the pH scale in middle school or high school science class, which is how we measure acids and bases. A higher pH (above 7.0) means more base, while a lower pH (below 7.0) means more acid. For example, liquid drain cleaner has a pH of 14.0 which is very basic, while battery acid has a pH of 0 and is very acidic.2. For an ideal dental environment, research suggests that a pH higher than 4.0 is best.3
Many of the most harmful dietary acids are found in beverages such as juices, sports drinks, sodas, sodas, coffee, tea, and alcohol. Unlike acidic foods like meat and cheese, acidic drinks can flow freely to all surfaces of the mouth and wash teeth with compounds that soften and erode the protective enamel layer. Saliva plays an important role in lowering the pH level in the mouth, but if acidic drinks are taken several times throughout the day, their benefits are waned. Over time, constant mouth exposure to acid is bound to lead to problems with cavities.
How to protect teeth from acids
Here are some suggestions I share with my dental care patients when we discuss sugars and acids in the diet:
drink more water. The brain develops a chemical dependence on the sweet, caffeinated, and alcoholic beverages we drink, and it can be hard to quit cold turkey. Instead, work on gradually replacing fluids with water. Depending on the number of sweet citrus drinks consumed, this transition can take anywhere from a few days to two weeks. be consistent.
Select the exposure time. If you indulge in a sweet or acidic drink, limit it to one sitting or meal instead of sipping it all day. The shorter the exposure time, the more effective the saliva is at buffering the dangerous pH level.
Remember that ‘diet’ and ‘sugar-free’ do not mean ‘healthy’. When it comes to acidic drinks, some may surprise you. Diet sodas, soda water, and sugar-free sports drinks may not contain carbohydrates, but most still contain different acids that flavor and preserve the product. The carbonation that provides the fresh and sparkling taste is very acidic.
Wait to brush your teeth after eating acid. Dentists recommend waiting at least 30 to 60 minutes to brush your teeth after eating sugars or acids. This will give saliva an opportunity to lower the pH level in the mouth, which will prevent the soft layers of enamel from being removed from the teeth with a toothbrush. Instead, wash it down with water or chew sugar-free gum.
Consider saliva pH testing. It is easy to buy test strips to monitor the pH in the mouth. Follow package instructions from the manufacturer. If the pH is too acidic (less than 4.0), evaluate the diet and discuss the results with your oral healthcare provider.
Talk to your dentist about products that protect against acids. There are many types of toothpastes, gels, rinses, gums, lozenges, and in-office treatments designed to regulate the pH in the mouth and strengthen teeth against acid wear.
Acid reflux control. Notably, chronic, uncontrolled gastroesophageal reflux disease causes stomach acid to flow into the esophagus and into the mouth, resulting in a persistent acidic oral environment. Those who experience frequent heartburn, problems swallowing, a stinging taste in the mouth while lying down, or who frequently clear their throat, should see a doctor for proper care.
Good result for Chris
Remember Chris? I am happy to report that he has received the recommended treatment for all of his cavities and that he is committed to kicking the soda habit. We have worked together to develop healthy eating habits and he remains passionate about improving his lifestyle. He hasn’t had a cavity in over two years! Consuming acid was once a huge part of his daily life, but his mouth is much happier without it. Making small, consistent changes and partnering with an oral health care provider is key to overcoming nutritional hurdles and improving your mouth. And the Public Health.
- Featherstone JD. Dental caries: a dynamic pathological process. ostdent c. 2008; 53 (3): 286-291. doi: 10.1111/j.1834-7819.2008.00064.x
- United States Geological Survey. pH meter. Accessed July 7, 2022. https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/ph-scale-0
- Reddy A, Norris DF, Momini SS, Waldo B, Robbie JD. The pH of beverages in the United States. J Am Dent Assoc. 2016; 147 (4): 255-263. doi: 10.1016/j.adaj.2015.10.019
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