Exercise is hailed as one of the best things you can do for your body. A combination of cardio and strength resistance increases your lifespan and decreases your chances of developing diseases or becoming obese. However, if you're dedicated to a life of fitness, you've got to pay attention to your oral health, because it seems like endurance and high-performance athletes have higher rates of tooth decay and gum disease.
Studies done across North America and in the United Kingdom show that up to 75% professional athletes have tooth decay, and 15% have further damage to the gums. What is it about exercise that bring in these kinds of numbers?
Well, it's actually not really the fault of exercise itself. Many elite athletes, especially those in endurance sports, use supplements like sports drinks, glucose tablets, and high-calorie processed foods in order to get the fuel needed to finish a long course. These are poor for oral health for a number of reasons, including:
- high acid content. Sports and energy drinks designed to balance electrolytes and boost performance have a startling affect on enamel. One study exposed teeth to sports drinks for fifteen minutes per day. Enamel decay became noticeably apparent after only five days, opening the way for cavities, gum disease, and root canal infection. Long races and training regimens mean that residue from sports drinks remains in the mouth during exercise, sometimes for hours, before the athlete has time to brush it away.
- high sugar content. Athletes need an extensive amount calories, especially carbohydrates, in order to meet peak performance levels. Meals may be heavy in starches, which break down into simple sugars even while chewing. Sugar is the food of choice for mouth-dwelling bacteria, allowing them to speed up the progression of tooth decay even further. Brushing teeth after meals and eating more complex carbohydrates, like brown rice, will help prevent this problem.
It's true that high-intensity training means that electrolytes will need to be replaced. However, athletes should know that sports drinks are not the best replenishment source, and not just because of the sugar content. Most of the electrolytes in sports drinks are over-processed, and so they aren't as good for the body as natural salts found from less refined sources. It's better to restore hydration and balance with:
- some Himalayan sea salt, lemon juice, and water. A pinch of salt mixed with pure water and a little lemon juice is more than enough to replenish salts that are lost through profuse sweating.
- coconut water. This natural drink is full of electrolytes, is a source of natural carbohydrates, and is better for hydration because it also contains trace amounts of minerals, proteins, and anti-oxidants.
Another reason, combined with the nutrition above, that some athletes may struggle to have healthy teeth is because prolonged exercise can lead to dry mouth. Saliva is essential to keeping bacteria from making a permanent home on your teeth, and so your mouth should always be moist. Athletes who exercise while consistently breathing though the mouth will find that it dries out, allowing for bacteria to get to work on breaking down the enamel.
In order to prevent dry mouth, athletes should drink plenty of water on a daily basis. While drinking during performance may not be possible, if you have optimal hydration at all other times, one race should not cause serious dry mouth. Another way to keep the mouth from drying out is to breath in through the nose, and out with the mouth. This keeps the air leaving your mouth moist, without inviting dry air into the mouth to further deplete limited stores of moisture.
However, some athletes may need help from a doctor because dry mouth can actually be a medical condition that needs to be remedied with medication and lifestyle choices.
Exercise does not have to change your oral health, if you make good choices about nutrition and hydration. Talk to a dentist today about keeping your teeth as healthy as possible during a training regimen, or before you start a new exercise program. You can also click here to find more info.