Did you know that you could damage your teeth with sugar-free drinks? As a dental hygienist who has been practicing for over 10 years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered brilliant, well-meaning patients who thought they were making healthy and responsible beverage choices, only to learn that they were encouraging oral disease.
It reminds me of a new patient several years ago. “Chris” came to our office for an examination and cleaning. He mentioned dark spots on a few of his front teeth, but other than that he had no concerns. He was 22 and had no health problems, and he described his daily oral care routine as brushing his teeth twice a day with an electric toothbrush, using fluoride toothpaste and flossing. dental most nights.
After taking x-rays and performing a thorough examination, the doctor and I discovered cavities. Not just a few small cavities; Chris had large areas of decay affecting his 28 teeth! The doctor and I were in disbelief as we had not expected to find such a magnitude of disease in such a young and healthy person. While the doctor focused on creating a restorative plan for the active cavity, I focused on finding out what caused Chris’ cavities so I could design a preventative plan for him.
Although “calorie-free”, sodas are not free
Lifestyle changes in dental patients may reduce damage from acid attack
As I asked him about his diet, Chris confidently said, “I don’t eat sweets. I rarely have desserts and I’m not a fan of sweets. I explained to him that many people forget that drinks are part of their diet, and I asked him what he drinks in an average day. He said quietly, “Well, I like diet sodas. I’ve been working on reducing the amount I drink, but I usually have six to eight cans a day. I used to drink regular sodas but went on a diet because I know the sugar free version is healthier and won’t affect my teeth, right? »
What are acidic foods and drinks?
Many people have a basic understanding of how diet influences oral health, but they don’t realize the dangers beyond sugar. But sugar isn’t the only dietary concern of dental professionals when it comes to the risk of tooth decay. While most of us know that sugar feeds cavity-causing bacteria in the mouth, many are surprised that sugar itself does not cause damage to teeth. Science shows that once sugar is consumed (carbohydrates), oral bacteria treat it as their own fuel and release an acidic waste byproduct once the sugar has served its purpose.1 This acid waste is what forms cavities, or holes, in the structure of the tooth.
If bacterial acid released by sugar consumption can cause tooth decay, imagine how much more damage can be done with extra acids. Dietary acids come in many forms, from dairy products to meat to grains. Our bodies need these acids to function optimally, but like many things, it is possible to overdo it. A diet that is too high in acid also makes the mouth environment acidic.
You may remember hearing about the pH scale in science class in middle school or high school, it’s how we measure acids and bases. A high pH (above 7.0) means there is more base, while a low pH (below 7.0) means there is more acid. For example, liquid drain cleaner has a pH of 14.0 and is extremely basic, while battery acid has a pH of 0 and is extremely acidic.2. For an ideal environment for teeth, research indicates that a pH above 4.0 is best.3
Many of the most harmful dietary acids are found in beverages such as juices, sports drinks, sodas, soft or sparkling drinks, coffee, tea, and alcohol. Unlike acidic foods such as meats and cheeses, acidic drinks can flow freely over all surfaces of the mouth and bathe the teeth with compounds that soften and erode the protective layer of enamel. Saliva has the important job of buffering the pH level in the mouth, but if acidic drinks are consumed multiple times throughout the day, its benefits are weakened. Over time, constant exposure of the mouth to acid is likely to produce caries problems.
How to protect teeth from acids
Here are some suggestions that I share with my dental hygiene patients when discussing sugars and acids in the diet:
Drink more water. The brain develops a chemical addiction to the sugary, caffeinated, and alcoholic beverages we drink, and it can be hard to quit cold turkey. Instead, try gradually replacing liquid intake with water. Depending on the number of sugary and acidic drinks consumed, this transition can take from a few days to a few weeks. To be coherent.
Limit exposure time. If you indulge in a sugary or acidic drink, limit your intake to one session or one meal instead of sipping it throughout the day. The shorter the exposure time, the more effective the saliva will be at buffering the dangerous pH level.
Remember that “diet” and “sugar-free” do not mean “healthy”..” When it comes to acidic drinks, some may surprise you. Diet sodas, sparkling waters, and sugar-free sports drinks may not contain carbohydrates, but most still contain various acids that flavor and preserve the product. The carbonation that gives that fresh, bubbly taste is also very acidic.
Wait to brush your teeth after consuming acids. Dental professionals recommend waiting at least 30 to 60 minutes to brush your teeth after consuming sugars or acids. This will give the saliva an opportunity to buffer the pH level in the mouth, which will prevent the softened layers of tooth enamel from being removed with the toothbrush. Instead, rinse with water or chew sugar-free gum.
Consider testing the pH of your saliva. Test strips are easy to buy to monitor your oral pH. Follow the instructions on the manufacturer’s packaging. If the pH is too acidic (below 4.0), evaluate the diet and discuss the results with your oral care provider.
Talk to your dentist about products that protect against acidity. There are many types of toothpastes, gels, rinses, gums, lozenges, and in-office treatments designed to regulate oral pH and strengthen teeth against acid erosion.
Manage your acid reflux. It should be mentioned that chronic and uncontrolled gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) causes stomach acid to back up into the esophagus and into the mouth, creating a constant acidic oral environment. Those who have frequent heartburn, trouble swallowing, a bitter taste in their mouth when lying down, or constantly clear their throat should see a doctor for proper care.
A good result for Chris
Do you remember Chris? I am happy to report that he has received the recommended treatment for all of his cavities and is committed to kicking his soda drinking habit. We have worked together to develop healthier eating habits and he remains enthusiastic about his improved lifestyle. He hasn’t had a cavity in over two years! Acid drinking was once a big part of her daily life, but her mouth is much happier without it. Making small, consistent changes and partnering with your oral care provider is key to overcoming dietary barriers and improving oral health. and overall health.
- Featherstone JD. Dental caries: a dynamic pathological process. Aust Dent J. 2008;53(3):286-291. doi:10.1111/j.1834-7819.2008.00064.x
- United States Geological Survey. pH scale. Accessed July 7, 2022. https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/ph-scale-0
- Reddy A, Norris DF, Momeni SS, Waldo B, Ruby JD. The pH of beverages in the United States. J Am Dent Assoc. 2016;147(4):255-263. doi:10.1016/j.adaj.2015.10.019