Cavities have been with us for millions of years, but they’ve been put on overdrive the last 125. Today 28% of children under 9 in developed countries have had a cavity. In low-sugar, “removed” populations that number goes down dramatically, to around 5%.
Clearly there are important lifestyle factors at work.
I’m not a dentist so I’m not going to give you advice on proper technique for brushing your teeth. Of course you also need to floss.
But I personally felt enlightened when I found out why teeth become healthy and unhealthy and what practices accelerate or decelerate the process. Beyond the usual suspects, of course.
And it turns out there are some simple but powerful changes you can make in your lifestyle that can reverse processes that cause your teeth to decay.
Your Mouth: A Bacterial Warzone
A healthy mouth is all about what types of bacteria are living in it. “Bad” bacteria feast on sugar after you eat and then spit out acid which decays your teeth.
The pH of your mouth is the single most important variable in oral health. If the pH of your mouth is less than 5.5 it’s probably eating into its enamel. If it’s more than that it’s probably building it. It’s always doing one or the other, so the trick is making sure your teeth are being built up more often than they’re torn apart.
Your mouth can repair its own enamel (ie, “remineralizing”) up to a certain point. However, once the decay gets to a certain level there’s no way to get it back. That’s when you start paying your dentist thousands of dollars to drill into your mouth.
Most of the food you eat is acidic. The only exceptions are certain types of leafy greens and other roots and legumes. The worst foods are those high in sugar, simple processed carbohydrates, carbonated beverages, and most caloric beverages. Eating can only have one effect on your mouth: to make it more ripe for bacteria and cavities, not less. (With a few exceptions, which we’ll discuss below).
Your body’s primary defense against acidity is saliva. Saliva washes out bad bacteria and brings your mouth’s pH to a more neutral state, which halts tooth decay and bacterial growth. Lots of “anti-cavity” products and remedies are merely ways of getting your body to secrete more saliva into its mouth.
So in order to maintain a healthy mouth you need to keep the following items under control
- Minimize the feeding material plaque forming bacteria have to work with
- minimize the reductions in pH (ie, acidity) in your mouth
- Maintain healthy levels of saliva
Achieving this generally involves the following behaviors:
- No sugar! Particularly sucrose. Simple sugars are the absolute worst. Complex starches are okay when eaten on their own, but have corrosive effects when consumed with a high sugar meal.
- As much as possible alkalize your mouth after meals (tips on doing this below)
- Don’t smoke
- Don’t take too many medications
Points three and four above are all about the saliva. Smoking gives you a dry mouth, and the majority of medications have “dry mouth” or “reduced saliva” listed as a possible side effect. Various lifestyle diseases like diabetes and different types of cancer have the same effect.
With regards to point 1, it’s important to understand that the frequency of sugar intake is more important than the bulk amount you digest. After a few hours your mouth will likely stablize its pH to a healthy level with its saliva. So it’s those brief moments right after you eat where the big differences are made. Bacteria are very greedy and they’ll cling towards the food and begin to re-colonize as soon as you’re done eating.
When you look at the different lifestyle variables that contribute to tooth decay a familiar meme presents itself: shit rolls downhill.
The moment in life when you are most susceptible to various health risks, financial peril, and behaviorally sealed off from initiating positive changes is the exact time you’re most vulnerable to Oral-acular disaster. Sometimes life is very regressive.
Effective Remedies and Foods to Eat
There is one substance in your house that has phenomenal tooth healing power. Baking soda. It’s very alkaline, very safe, and very good at removing the acidity from your mouth.
At his website Dr. Frey has a very simple and effective baking soda mouthwash you can use to restore balance to your mouth after a meal or before you brush your teeth:
• 8 ounces Tap Water
• 1 teaspoon Baking Soda
• 20 drops Peppermint Oil (or another esstial oil to taste – Peppermint works best)
• Optional: 5 teaspoons Xylitol for sweetness (you can find this online or at a local health store)
Read more: Re-Balancing Your Oral pH with an Alkaline Mouthwash
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Most mouthwashes are acidic and continuous use will probably cause your enamel to erode.
You can also chew gum that has xylitol in it after meals. I was always skeptical of the chewing gum that claimed it helped fight cavities, since I couldn’t conceive how chewing gum could improve oral health when all other foods make it worse. It seemed like slick marketing. I don’t believe that anymore since the only reason they promote tooth health is by stimulating saliva in your mouth. And xylitol definitely does that for me. After chewing a few sticks my mouth is drowning in spittle and I have to spit out a small pond in order to talk.
Foods to Eat
It’s hard to say how much effect they have, but foods with a high phenolic content promote gum health and prevent cavity formation.
Because they seem to inhibit enzymes that bacteria use to feed on sugar. I’ve written previously about the immense health benefits of anti-oxidant rich foods like green-tea and cocoa, and the same compounds that allow them to fight cancer help your body fight cavities.
The following foods in particular have displayed oral-protective qualities:
- green and black tea (catechins)
- cocoa (the raw kind)
- chicory root and some mushrooms (quinic acid)
- coffee (chlorogenic acid)
I think the take home point from all this is that your mouth is a very dynamic place, and the bacterial battle for oral health is being fought hour by hour. Outside of just brushing and flossing, the key to a healthy mouth is muting the daily fluctuations in acidity so your body’s enamel building systems can always be turned on.
1). Ferrazzano, Gianmaria, et. al. “Anti-cariogenic effects of polyphenols from plant stimulant beverages (cocoa, coffee, tea)”
2). Gazzani, Gabriella, et. al. “Food Components With Anticaries Activity”
3). Daglia, Maria, et. al. “Plant and Fungal Food Components with Potential Activity on the Development of Microbial Oral Diseases”
4). Van Palenstein, Helderman, et. al. “Cariogenicity depends more on diet than the prevailing mutans streptococcal species.”
5). Palmer, C.A. “Diet and Caries-associated Bacteria in Severe Early Childhood Caries”
6 thoughts on “The Healthy Smile Lifestyle: How to Eat and Live for Healthy Teeth”
Hey Jonathan. Thanks for this insightful article. I always thought that coffee is unhealthy for our teeth because most doctor’s told me to stop drinking coffee when i had some blurring problems. However, i am a coffee lover and it’s great to know that it is not unhealthy at all.
Jenni, I believe the problem with coffee is that it gets caught in the plaque that’s built up on your teeth which causes your teeth to brown. Conceivably if the rest of your oral health is very good and you keep your mouth alkaline then the ability for coffee to brown your teeth would be greatly diminished.
As a dentist, I just wanted to say that I enjoyed your article. Easy to read common sense, with your facts straight.
[…] in our mouths from eating. A blog that I read, Health Kismet, talks about this in their post “The Healthy Smile Lifestyle: How to Eat and Live for Healthy Teeth“, along with a recipe for a mouthwash to use after meals (which I plan to […]
Great article! I especially like the recipe for baking soda mouth wash. I have all of the ingredients except the peppermint oil but that’s easy to get. I plan on trying this out. I neglected my teeth as a child and it’s alarming how sugar is marketed to children. I feel like we, as adults, are setting our kids up for failure. It’s important to start healthy mouth habits early on. Thanks for the information.
No problem Jennifer!