You might be one of those people that brushes and flosses religiously, maybe twice a day, maybe even after every meal. So when you get your first cavity and have to visit a dentist, it makes no sense to you. After all, you’re taking good care of your teeth … so why do they have a hole? Well, according to Dr. Steven Lin, the problem isn’t your toothbrush or your toothpaste. It’s what you eat. You may have thought you can consume all the sweets you want, as long as you brush your teeth right after. Makes sense, right?
Well, Dr. Lin’s studies showed something different. The famed dentist tells us our past assumptions were wrong. For decades, we believed bacteria in our mouths made our teeth rot, leading to cavities. So as long as we brushed away that bacteria after every meal, we’d be fine. Turns out we were only partially right. See, the bacteria aren’t caused by sweets. They exist naturally in our mouths. They’re always there, we can’t brush them away.
Also, these bacteria are actually the good guys. They kill potentially harmful toxins in our mouths, and in our food. How? They consume whatever we eat and excrete acids. These acids destroy toxins, keeping our mouths healthy. But … the bacteria have a sweet tooth. So when you consume excess sugars, the bacteria over-eat, producing too much acid.
Balance is everything
This acid kills germs, but there still some acid left, and that burns through our teeth. When you consume a balanced diet, you have a healthy amount of bacteria, which produces the right amount of acid. Also, your saliva counteracts the acid, maintaining a healthy pH in your mouth. Too much sugar means more acid than your saliva can neutralise. Plus, if you snack between meals, your mouth has no downtime. The saliva doesn’t have room to work.
The best way to prevent acids – therefore – is to eat fruits and vegetables with bite, and consume lots of collagen. The biting action stimulates your mouth to produce more saliva, which then balances out the acid. Biting also removes some of the leftover bits of food. And it exercises your jaws, making them gradually larger, just like exercise does to other muscles.
Bigger jaws mean less spacing problems in your teeth, so no crookedness, no misalignment, and no wisdom tooth extraction, since there’s plenty of room for all your teeth to grow in correct position. Vitamins A, D, and K also help with jaw development. But what does all this have to do with tooth erosion? Well, the upper surface of your teeth is called the enamel. When it’s eroded, it exposes the dentine, and sometimes even the nerves.
Acid and your dentine
Exposed dentine makes your teeth lose their whiteness, because dentine is much darker than enamel. Its natural colour ranges from yellow to beige, almost pale brown. Also, cracks in the dentine are difficult to repair, and it’s more brittle than the enamel, so it’s more easily damaged. Enamel erosion can cause pain because the nerves are now in the open. You may feel sensitive when you eat hot, cold, or acidic foods.
The more your enamel erodes, he worse it gets. A deep enough hole in the tooth becomes a cavity, and if the damage reaches your blood vessels, you could catch an infection, develop an abscess, or lose the tooth altogether. And that erosion is caused primarily by the food you eat. Sugary foods have an indirect effect, because they trigger excessive acid production by the bacteria in your mouth, and that acid erodes your teeth.
Sugar + acid = trouble
However, if you eat foods that already have acid in them, that acid acts directly on your enamel, leading to erosion. This especially happens if you consume the acidic items immediately after eating something hot (or if the acidic food itself is hot). This is because hot items soften your enamel, making them more susceptible to the action of acids.
Similarly, smoking or chewing tobacco coats your tooth surface in sticky tar. Whatever you eat after that sticks onto the tar, which means the acids (both from the food and the bacteria) have more time to act on the food particles, and on your enamel. In the same way, sticky foods stay on your teeth longer. This includes ‘healthy’ sticky foods, like currants and dates.
Tomatoes and citrus fruits are also good for you, even though they’re acidic. You can eat them, but have them as part of a meal or salad rather than consuming them on their own. The main acid issue comes from carbonated products like soda and energy drinks. They have high sugar content and their fizz is caused by acidic additives, so it’s a double attack.
The down side of Vitamin C
Lemon and citrus flavouring adds even more acid. You might think sour sweets are okay, because they’re not sweet, but that sour flavour comes from acid, so be wary. Fresh squeezed lemon or orange juice isn’t safe either, so drink it as a treat, not a daily habit.
Here’s another interesting note. Brushing your teeth immediately after eating something acidic doesn’t fix the problem. If anything, it makes matters worse. Your acidic meal has softened your enamel, so it’s vulnerable. This means bristles and toothpaste could inadvertently erode your teeth.
So when you’ve eaten something sharp, wait an hour before your brush, to allows your enamel to harden. In the meantime, chew sugar-free gum or eat some cheese. The cheese will neutralise the acid, and the gum will push your mouth to produce more saliva, which will help in washing away any excess acid.
Erosion is forever
Enamel can’t be replaced, so once erosion begins, you have to add an artificial protective coating. This could be in the form of a filling, a crown, or a veneer. If the damage is deeper, you’ll need a root canal, or the tooth may have to come out altogether. Cut down your acidic drinks, and use a straw to avoid direct, prolonged contact with your teeth. Chase your acidic food or drink with some milk, or anything rich in dairy and calcium.
Alternatively, just rinse your mouth out with plain water. Gum after meals is a good idea. It removes any stuck food particles and makes your mouth produce more saliva. Check that the gum is sugar-free, and remember that it’s a stop-gap, not a permanent substitute for brushing your teeth. If you have your toothbrush with you, you can still chew your gum, but you should brush your teeth an hour later.