As marathon and triathlon season rolls around, the fit (and fitter) among us begin to pump up their workout routines to train for competitive events. A solid workout is one of the more valuable contributions just about anyone can make for health. Your weight, your mood, your entire quality of life is improved with physical exercise. In fact, a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that people who run as few as five minutes a day live an average of three years longer than those who never run at all.
However, there is one important caveat to all this good news—wouldn’t you know it! Recent studies have found that while endurance athletes boast better overall health than non-athletes, they (runners in particular) are more prone to more cavities, enamel erosion, and other oral health problems than non-athletes.
Why would an otherwise uber-healthy, active person’s oral health be poorer than a less active person’s? Researchers thought one obvious culprit might be the sports drinks, gels, and bars athletes often consume to fuel high-endurance exercise.
By and of themselves, energy drinks and nutrition bars have been proven to create long-term problems for your mouth and teeth. Sports drinks like Gatorade, and Accelerade, and energy bars of all stripes can contain lots of sugar. Sugar converts to glucose which speedily fuels muscles with extra energy during races and training. As marathoners will attest, sugars are brilliant at extending athletic endurance. But they also create a rich breeding ground for tooth decay.
Surprisingly, though, researchers found that sugar-fueling alone was not the primary cause of tooth decay for athletes in the studies. The transformative cause was found to be saliva, or more accurately, the changes that occur in saliva during high-impact or endurance exercise.
Along with fluoride, saliva is one of the mouth’s strongest natural defenses against tooth decay and gum disease. In a healthy mouth saliva flows constantly, working to clear food particles; rebuild tooth enamel; prevent gum disease; and best of all, neutralize enamel-destroying acids left on the teeth by local bacteria, which burgeon in the mouth when sugar.is present.
However, saliva changes during endurance exercise. The chief reason for those changes is dry mouth. During hard exercise, running or swimming, for instance, you are generally breathing through your mouth. As the exercise session progresses, your mouth dries out, saliva quality declines and saliva flow slows, even stops! Athletes know this as cotton mouth, and yes, it can happen to distance swimmers as well. Lower saliva rates decrease the mouth’s ability to fight acid-forming bacteria, and keep itself clean. Add sugary energy bars and drinks, consumed steadily over the course of a long work-out and the stage is set for tooth decay. Teeth are now left defenseless to the effects of the acid produced by sugar-fueled bacteria.
Hmmmm…you’re thinking. Let me get this straight. I’m committed to keeping myself in the best possible physical condition; maintaining a healthy diet, and–based on expert advice–keeping myself well-hydrated and fueled during workouts. But I’m ruining my teeth in the process?!?
Well, the risk is real – but you don’t have to stop working out–and you shouldn’t; the health benefits of cardiovascular exercise far outweigh the drawbacks. You can significantly reduce the overall risk factors for tooth decay simply by making a few basic changes to how and when you fuel, and how you take care of your mouth and teeth when you aren’t exercising. Here are a few tips that can really change the equation:
- Stay hydrated and if you are a cross country or distance runner, consider increasing your salt intake, which enables your body to retain water;
- Choose your energy bars and drinks carefully. Cherry-pick workout fuels that are low in sugar and acids, and try not to take frequent swigs or bites of sugary stuff during long runs or workouts;
- Rinse your mouth with water if you must quick-fuel with sugary bars and drinks. The aid station at your 5k or half-marathon may have a choice of sports drink or water. Take one of each, then rinse with water and spit as you go;
- Alternate energy fueling with sugar-free gum during your workout and pop a sugar-free mint with xylitol afterward to offset bacteria and allow your saliva glands to start working again.
- Ask our staff about sealants and fluoride treatments. Let us know that you are an endurance athlete and we can discuss ways to help you prevent tooth decay from getting started;
- Brush and floss at least twice a day. If your mouth is feeling especially rank after exercise, brush and floss then, too.
Adding a few extra minutes of oral hygiene to your daily workout regime is way easier than completing a half-marathon. But that extra measure of attention could ensure that your teeth stay as healthy and conditioned as the rest of you.