Healthy Lifestyle Doesn't Always Mean a Healthy Mouth
You would think that all those healthy marathoners, triathletes and endurance athletes who live extremely healthy lives would have a healthy mouth, right? Well, there is a dangerous mix of habits that actually is increasing tooth decay in the healthiest of people. Sipping and eating carbohydrates during long races and training days bathes your teeth in acid and sugar and breathing through your mouth creates an environment that allows Streptococcus mutans (the bacteria responsible for cavities) to flourish.
Carbohydrate Loading and Replenishing Glycogen Stores
Besides generally eating more carbohydrates before races athletes who train for hours at a time need to replenish their glucose stores and usually do so in the form of gels, bars and chews that are very high in sugar. Sports drinks are even more common for all people who exercise have very high sugar and high acid levels which increase tooth decay and erosion of dental enamel, respectively.
Training for a full marathon and long distance triathlons like an Ironman, you can easily bathe your teeth in this dangerous mix for 2-8 hours of training a day. Now most people will not be doing anything of the sort so in that case water is much more beneficial than sports drinks if you are working out for less than 1 hour at a time.
A review article in the American Journal of Dentistry states Individuals engaged in physical activity may be educated to the lack of benefits of sports drinks over water and should be encouraged to avoid dehydration and swishing acidic drinks in the mouth to prevent dental erosion.
Oral health educators should be reinforcing important practices to sports drink users such as decreasing the time that the sports drink remains in the mouth and avoiding dehydration. Finally, compared to water, the benefits of a sports drink for most recreationally active individuals is negligible.
As an athlete spends many long hours training and racing, breathing either fully or partially through the mouth, it can become drier. A drier mouth means less saliva flow and diminished concentration of acid neutralizing enzymes to fight tooth decay and therefore the tooth decay process is accelerated. An article in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports saliva flow rates decreased and saliva pH increased significantly. Resulting in a higher risk for dental erosion, exercise-dependent caries risk. They concluded that the need for risk-adapted preventive dental concepts in the field of sports dentistry.
What Can an Endurance Athlete Do?
It's not all doom and gloom. As a triathlete myself I am not going to give up training (by the way, that's me on the right in the picture up there.) We need to fuel our body for how hard we push it but at the same time we cannot jeapordize our dental health in the process and we don't have to. There are some simple things you can do:
It is hard to balance your training with the other responsibilities in life. I know because we have to do it ourselves. Following these tips will help you spend more time out biking, running or swimming rather than in the dental chair. See you out there my fellow triathletes!
Dr. Ila Mankad is a general dentist in Brentwood California. She wants to teach patients the not so secret ways of achieving a healthy mouth.