Oral health is about much more than just brushing your teeth twice a day—though that’s an excellent start. Regular dental visits are also important, as is knowing the warning signs of impending gum or tooth disease.
Another factor to consider is your diet. We’ve all heard that sugar leads to cavities, but most people don’t know why sugar is bad for your teeth. It’s not actually the sugar itself that’s the issue, but the bacteria that love to feed on sugar. By limiting your sugar intake, you can lessen the number of bad bacteria in your mouth, leading to fewer oral issues in the future.
What are Cavities?
Cavities result from tooth decay, where the surface of your teeth develops small holes that lead into the deeper layers of your teeth. Small cavities may seem like a small problem, but they can lead to toothaches, infections, and eventually lost teeth if left untreated.
Most people aren’t aware that they have cavities, especially in the early stages. That’s why regular dental visits are so important, as they allow us to treat any cavities before they lead to significant oral health issues.
What Causes Cavities?
What causes cavities in the first place? The short answer is—bacteria growing on your teeth. The longer answer is that these bacteria form a biofilm on your teeth that’s resistant to saliva and brushing, known as plaque. As the bacteria continue to grow, they produce acids, which can easily eat into your tooth enamel.
As these acids continue to eat into your enamel, they create small holes. The bacteria can then move into these holes and continue the process. They’ll eventually reach the next tooth layer—the dentin—
which is much softer and easier to penetrate than enamel.
Once the bacteria breach this layer, you’re in for a lot of pain and sensitivity as the bacteria continue onto your tooth pulp and, eventually, even your jawbone.
Bacteria need a food source, which is where sugar comes in. Even a small coating of sugar on your teeth can be a feast for these bacteria, allowing them to grow faster and form plaque more easily. The more sugar you eat, the higher chance you have of developing tooth decay and cavities.
The Stages Of Cavities and Caries Development (Most Commonly Known as Tooth Decay)
How Your Mouth Protects Against Tooth Decay
Bacteria can grow almost anywhere, which is why your mouth has developed certain defenses against tooth decay.
Saliva provides a protective barrier against bacteria and food accumulation on your teeth. Every time you swallow, your saliva washes away bits of food off your teeth, along with many unwanted bacteria.
However, many modern foods are great at sticking to your teeth for a long time. Ice cream, soda, dried fruit, and even milk will coat your teeth in sugar and can be very difficult for your saliva to wash away on its own.
Acids degrade your tooth enamel by removing minerals, causing the enamel to become brittle and easy to penetrate. However, at the same time, your saliva provides various minerals to assist in the process of remineralization—adding minerals back to your enamel.
Remineralization uses calcium and phosphates to strengthen your tooth enamel. Fluoride is also especially important in the process, which is why so many kinds of toothpaste, mouthwashes, and even municipal water supplies contain it. It can speed up the remineralization process and help offset the constant barrage of bacterial acids and tooth decay.
While remineralization is effective at restoring enamel, it’s a relatively slow process compared to mineral leaching by acids. The best way to help your tooth enamel recover is to avoid eating foods that speed up tooth decay.
How Does Sugar Really Rot Your Teeth?
Sugar in itself doesn’t do any harm to your teeth. What it does do is provide an easy source of nutrients to the harmful bacteria found in your mouth. Surprisingly, these same bacteria actually perform a useful function since a little bit of acid in your saliva helps break down food before it reaches your stomach.
It’s when there’s an excess of sugar that these bacteria become harmful. They produce excess amounts of acid, which starts attacking your tooth enamel, eventually leading to cavities and tooth decay. The more sugar you consume, the more food the bacteria have, allowing them to grow and reproduce rapidly.
It’s important to note that these bacteria can use any type of sugar, no matter what form it’s in. That includes “natural sugars” like honey, molasses, and maple syrup. If you were wondering if fruit can give you cavities, yes, other forms of sugar, such as fructose, can feed bacteria as well.
Can Sugar Also Cause Gum Disease?
Gum disease, or periodontitis, has the same main cause as tooth decay—the formation of plaques that eventually move down into your soft gum tissue. Once the bacteria reach the base around your teeth, they can quickly grow and multiply, eventually causing pockets in your gums.
Periodontitis can lead to painful, bleeding gums, tooth loss, and bone disease in your jawbone. As with tooth decay, the more sugar you eat, the more bacteria will grow.
Ways to Protect Your Teeth
Both tooth decay and gum disease are preventable with good oral hygiene and a careful evaluation of your diet. The Dental Care Report does a great job at articulating many of the ways people can improve and understand their dental health. Your mouth has an in-built protection mechanism to keep your teeth and gums strong and healthy, but you can take extra steps to help.
Taking the necessary precautions will help you maintain a good balance of oral bacteria without suffering from oral infections.
Brushing is your first line of defense against tooth decay and the negative effects of sugar on teeth. It gently removes most of the bacteria from your teeth while also removing their food source. Keep to a regular, twice a day brushing routine for best results.
Some people tend to overdo brushing, assuming that hard brushing is the way to go, but this can do more harm than good. You can easily scrape off brittle enamel with over-enthusiastic brushing. If you’re uncertain about the right amount of pressure and brushing technique, feel free to ask one of our dentists during your next appointment.
Avoid Prolonged Sugar Contact
Almost every food contains sugar in some form or other, making it very difficult to keep your mouth sugar-free at all times. Eating sugar isn’t a problem, as long as you remove traces of sugar from your mouth as soon as possible.
Sweets and foods that stay in your mouth are the worst culprits of tooth decay. Chewy foods, dried fruits, and even milk can linger for hours, giving your oral bacteria plenty of food for growth. If you do eat food that stays in your mouth, remove the excess by brushing or using mouthwash to remove as much of the sugar as quickly as possible.
Chew Something if You Can’t Brush
There are going to be times when you can’t simply retreat to the bathroom to brush your teeth. In these instances, you can chew some sugar-free gum to pick up any excess food particles. If you don’t have gum, even a piece of cheese can help neutralize some of the acids produced.
Control Your Sugar Intake
Carbohydrates are one of the major food groups, and it’s impossible to eliminate them from your diet. Instead, be aware of your sugar intake, and take steps to mitigate the risks. Remember that even healthy snacks can have a lot of hidden sugars and carbohydrates, including:
- Trail mix
- Salad dressing
- Dried fruit
In general, opt for lighter foods that stay in your mouth for less time. If you’re going to have a decadent treat, consider eating some lighter pound cake instead of a brownie. Even if they have the same amount of sugar, the pound cake will dissolve quicker, resulting in less bacterial growth.
Learn the Warning Signs of Tooth Decay and Gum Disease
Gum disease is often invisible until it becomes a serious problem, which is true for tooth decay. The sooner you address these conditions, the better—knowing the warning signs can save you a lot of future pain. Some warning signs include:
- Swollen or tender gums
- Bleeding gums when you eat hard foods or floss
- Gums pulling away from your teeth
- Tooth sensitivity
- Tooth pain
- Persistent bad breath, no matter how often you floss or brush
Protect Your Smile
Your sugar intake can dramatically affect your overall oral health. Excess sugar leads to increased bacterial growth, which will strip away your protective tooth enamel and cause tooth decay.
While avoiding sugary foods is a great start, it’s only part of a good oral hygiene routine. Brushing, flossing, and regular dental visits can reduce the incidence of tooth decay, leaving you feeling better and more confident about your smile.
If you live in Howard County or near Ellicott City, MD and you’re worried about how your sugar consumption affects your teeth, schedule a check-up with our friendly staff and team here at Menton Family Dental Care. You can schedule an appointment by calling (410) 740-9400 or by clicking the Get Started button below!