Category Archives: tooth decay

Chew on this

During the holiday season–spanning Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the December holidays–most of us worry about our consumption of sugary candy and desserts.

We should worry. Sugar not only adds calories but it also can lead to other health problems. For one thing, sugar clearly leads to problems with our teeth. It’s well established that the bacteria in our mouths combines with sugar to create an acid that causes tooth decay.

There’s a useful remedy for the tooth problem. No, not the one that immediately comes to mind.

Sure, you can brush your teeth right after consuming sugar-loaded food and drink. But how many of us do it?

Until something else comes along (and it inevitably will, thanks to researchers like the ones I noted in my blog post “Beavers? Seriously?” last March), here’s one thing you can try: chewing sugar-free gum.

In October, The Wall Street Journal highlighted how chewing gum can help reduce tooth decay. It quoted a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association–a family dentist in Fremont, California, Dr. Ruchi Sahota–on the virtues of sugar-free gum. According to Dr. Sahota, chewing gum after eating stimulates saliva, and that can prevent cavities.

Why? Naturally occurring saliva helps to neutralize the mouth by reducing the acids produced by bacteria in food, and those acids are what ultimately cause cavities. Chewing sugar-free gum can reduce the amount of the bacteria-happy acid. In 2007, the ADA began including chewing gum in its Seal of Approval program. But only sugarless gums can qualify (other gums contain the kinds of sugars used as food by bacteria).

Sugar-free gums typically use artificial sweeteners, most of which are created in a lab, and there’s been some discussion of whether they are safe. But concerns about their being carcinogenic have been dismissed by the FDA for lack of clear evidence.

Some dentists promote chewing gum sweetened with xylitol, a sugar alcohol that usually derives from wood fiber. Studies have shown that it adds mineral to tooth enamel, and one study showed that it can inhibit the growth of bacteria that stick to teeth.

But recent analysis concluded that there was insufficient evidence that xylitol can help prevent cavities. So Dr. Sahota told the Journal that the research “isn’t conclusive enough” to promote gums with xylitol over other sugar-free gums.

Although some dentists recommend chewing sugarless gum for at least 20 minutes to get the full anti-bacterial effect, Dr. Sahota disagrees. She advises moderation, cautioning people “not to overchew,” which can be hard on the jaw and tooth enamel.

Regarding candy, Dr. S. recommends avoiding sticky or hard candies because they’re the worst cavity-causing villains. Chocolate is much better for your teeth because it washes away more easily than other candies. Yay, chocolate!

As an inveterate gum-chewer, I’m happy to learn that all those sticks of sugar-free gum I chew can help me avoid tooth decay.

But “candy is candy.” So although chewing gum may help forestall the worst effects of coating our teeth with sugar, we need to remember that a toothbrush will do an even better job of scouring all that sugar off our teeth.

Enjoy those sugary holiday treats. But don’t forget to keep some sugar-free gum handy to pop in your mouth when you’re done. Even rinsing your mouth with water ought to help. And at bedtime, if not before, head for your trusty Sonicare or Oral-B.

Once your teeth are properly scoured, you can drift off to sleep, those visions of sugar plums dancing in your head.

 

Beavers? Seriously?

Here’s a piece of news to chew on. A recent study of beavers’ teeth may lead to decay-resistant teeth for humans.

Although beavers never brush their teeth, and they certainly don’t drink fluoridated water, their teeth are protected from tooth decay by the iron that’s part of the tooth’s chemical structure.

If you looked at a beaver’s teeth, you’d notice that their iron-rich coating gives the teeth a reddish-brown or orange color. Apparently orange is the new white.

Researchers found that the pigmented enamel on beavers’ teeth is both harder and more resistant to acid than human tooth enamel, even when treated with fluoride. This discovery could lead to a better understanding of human tooth decay, as well as improvements in current fluoride treatment.

Tooth decay in humans is a major public health problem, even in this era of fluoride treatments. The American Dental Association estimates that dental care in this country costs $111 billion a year, and much of it is spent on cavities and other tooth-decay issues. According to the World Health Organization, up to 90 percent of children and nearly 100 percent of adults worldwide have or have had cavities.

The research team, led by Derk Joester, an engineering and materials science professor at Northwestern University, discovered that small amounts of an “amorphous solid” rich in iron and magnesium are what make rodent teeth resistant to acid. “[We’ve made a] big step forward in understanding the composition and structure of enamel—the tooth’s protective outer layer…,” said Joester.

Researchers included Jill D. Pasteris, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. She calls their findings a great example of “the structural-chemical novelty [we’re] still discovering in natural, biomineralized materials” like teeth and bone.

Looking at the teeth of beavers and other rodents, the researchers used powerful technology to map the enamel’s structure, atom by atom. They subjected the teeth to acid and took images before and after. The journal Science published this unprecedented imaging study of tooth enamel in February.

Some of the details of the research are pretty technical, but you really should give a dam about the results. Although a beaver’s teeth are chemically different from our teeth, they’re not structurally different, and the results of the study may lead to stronger tooth enamel and better fluoride treatments.

This news is especially encouraging in light of what we’ve just learned about the sugar industry. The industry has for years covered up proof that reducing sugar-consumption prevents tooth decay. The San Francisco Examiner reports that researchers at UC San Francisco have found documents revealing how the industry worked with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to avoid condemning sugar, trying instead to develop alternatives (like a vaccine to prevent tooth decay).

Buried in an archive of industry documents discovered at the University of Illinois was a startling document. It showed that a sugar-industry group acknowledged as early as 1950 that sugar causes tooth decay. But, according to the UCSF researchers, Dr. Cristin Kearns and Laura Schmidt, the sugar industry influenced NIH to steer scientists toward developing alternative approaches to tooth decay instead of focusing on the damage done by sugar consumption. (The study is published this month in the scientific journal PLOS Medicine.)

Does this remind you of the tobacco industry and its efforts to suppress scientific evidence that smoking leads to cancer and other illnesses?

The damage caused by sugar is finally getting attention from scientists, and efforts to cut back on its consumption are gaining ground. Last November, voters in Berkeley imposed a tax on sugary drinks, and a majority of San Francisco voters approved a soda tax (it didn’t become law because it required two-thirds to pass). [My blog post, “Gimme a Little Sugar,” published on 10/2/14, focuses on the damage done by sugary drinks and by sugar in general.]

Three SF supervisors have just renewed their efforts to restrict the consumption of sugary drinks in San Francisco. But even if efforts like these succeed, we’ll still face the problem of tooth decay for years to come. So paying attention to beavers’ teeth may prove helpful.

Let’s snatch victory from the jaws of tooth decay. If we start by Leaving it to Beavers, our descendants may someday sport decay-resistant teeth just like theirs.