Welcome back to our series on tooth decay and remineralization.
In the first two articles in this series, we explored the chemical structure of our teeth and how the decay process occurs. Overall, we established that trying to rid our mouths of bacteria is both folly and downright unhealthy.
The goal is to ‘balance our oral flora’.
Yes, we can use certain strategies, like brushing with our HealThy Mouth Blend, to help rebalance our oral microbiome. But we want to avoid a ‘scorched earth, take no prisoners’ approach, which leaves everything in despair when it comes to creating optimal oral health.
The ideal path is to understand how we can steward the colonization of beneficial bacteria in our mouths.
With this in mind, in this article, let’s go back into the mouth and understand the ripple effect that’s caused by consuming even just one sugary snack.
(We know this can be a sensitive subject. We all know that sugar causes all sorts of problems, and our ‘inner child’ doesn’t necessarily want to hear more. So, be sure to check the end of this article where we share some strategies for how to help mitigate the damage of eating sugary foods.)
The sweet snack…
When we eat or drink something with sugar (in any form), the plaque pH in our mouth drops from a normal, healthy level of about 7 to around 5 to 5.5.
Incidentally, if our bodies tend to run more on the acidic side of the scale and our normal saliva pH is 6.0 to 6.5, adding sugar (fermentable carbohydrate) will cause the pH in active plaque colonies to drop even lower.
This decline in pH lasts from 30 minutes to 2 hours.
Quick refresher on pH…
pH is the measure of the acidity or alkalinity of a liquid. Commonly recognized as ranging from 0 to 14, the middle reading of 7 is the pH of pure water. Anything lower than 7 is increasingly acidic. Anything greater than 7 is alkaline/base.
When we go from a saliva pH of 7.0 to let’s say 6.0, our saliva has become 10 times more acidic.
Dentistry agrees that the minerals in our teeth dissolve and leave our teeth when pH is in the 5.0 to 5.5 range.
(For more information on oral pH, you can download a free pH tracking resource here and read our article on how to track your saliva pH here. If you’d like to start tracking your saliva pH, feel free to check out our pH Test Strips.)
Back to how a sweet snack can impact our mouth…
While it’s definitely acidic, a pH of 5.0 to 5.5 in and of itself isn’t the end of the road for our enamel.
Yeah, the acidic environment causes the minerals to dissolve a bit, but our saliva can neutralize the acidic environment and does so in that same 30 to 120 minutes post sugar consumption.
The bigger problem is that most beneficial bacterial strains (the ones we want to encourage in the mouth) don’t function well at that low of a pH. It causes them to become less active and to metabolically shut down.
However, strep mutans, the main thug bug implicated with tooth decay, thrives in this lower pH environment.
You know what’s next…
Repeatedly exposing our oral microbiome to sugar creates a drop in pH that provides the perfect environment for strep mutans to dominate the zones on our teeth.
As ‘good conductors of the symphony in our mouths‘, one of the strategies we aim to apply is to encourage the beneficial bacterial strains. We want the good bugs to dominate a region so thug bugs like strep mutans have to scrap and fight for a place to hang out.
Unfortunately, repeated exposure to sugar has the exact opposite effect. Over time, consuming sugary foods encourages (and even downright causes) strep mutans to dominate the mouth.
How sugar impacts oral health from ‘outside the mouth’…
Unfortunately, the negative impact that sugar has on our oral health goes beyond just causing a decline in oral pH and increased numbers of strep mutans.
Eating sugar also causes the flow of fluid in our teeth to reverse directions. Instead of cleansing our teeth by repelling bacteria, the new, reversed flow direction sucks sugar (and the bugs implicated with tooth decay) into our teeth.
We have written extensively about dentinal fluid flow in an article titled, ‘What causes tooth decay (and how to stop it).‘
Saliva to the rescue…
Our saliva tirelessly rescues us from the low pH that results from eating something sweet.
In fact, saliva has multiple mechanisms to neutralize the circumstances associated with tooth decay.
For example, saliva buffers the acids through a series of steps. It’s almost like a relay race–one system raises the pH to a point, then passes the baton to another mechanism to raise the pH even more, and so on.
Some of this acid buffering is accomplished by minerals in our saliva, and some is accomplished by saliva proteins. Through this ‘multi-mechanism’ effort, our systems neutralize acids in the mouth as quickly as possible to restore a pH that supports tooth remineralization.
Another main job of saliva is something called ‘oral clearance’ (also called ‘salivary clearance’).
This is when saliva simply flushes acids (and thug bugs that some of the saliva proteins have rounded up) out of the mouth. While some people might find it an unpleasant thought, we swallow a lot of bacteria every day.
The fact that we produce close to a liter (quart) of saliva each day shows you just how much ‘oral clearance’ happens without our conscious effort. Oral clearance is another way in which saliva helps to stop the damage in our mouths.
Rather than having to neutralize all the sugar in the mouth, through oral clearance, we have a built-in mechanism that sends sugars and acids along their digestive journey.
How sweet flavor impacts saliva production
So we prevent acids from damaging our teeth by buffering them and via oral clearance, but how do sweet flavors impact our saliva production?
This is (yet) another reason why sugars are so problematic.
You see, our bodies produce saliva based on stimulation. One form of stimulation is via chewing (which is why, for example, chewing xylitol gum has been proven to lower the risk of tooth decay).
The other way saliva production is stimulated (unconsciously) is from taste.
Science groups the flavors that stimulate saliva production into 3 groups: sour, salty, and sweet.
You guessed it–sweet foods are the least stimulating for our saliva.
While sour flavor causes our mouth to pucker, it also causes us to produce many times more saliva than sweet foods.
This makes sense if you think about it. Sour foods are generally acidic. So our bodies are naturally hardwired to produce more saliva to neutralize the acids in sour foods.
The bummer is that when we regularly eat sweet foods, it becomes the norm and our natural salivary mechanisms aren’t strongly activated to neutralize the damage.
Solutions to help mitigate sugar damage in the mouth
Here are four super simple tips we can use to help prevent acids from destroying our enamel.
1. Swish with water.
Aside from the obvious choice to reduce our consumption of sweet foods, one simple step we all can take is to have a glass of room temperature water (without lemon) with us while eating.
Vigorously swishing a sip of water after eating something sweet can help reduce the negative impact on our oral microbiome.
2. Even better, sip, swish, swallow, and repeat.
By repeatedly rinsing the mouth (with room temperature water without lemon), we provide even more relief and a quicker recovery to get back to a healthier mouth pH.
This encourages oral clearance and helps reduce the amount of time that strep mutans has to establish itself as the ‘top dog’ of the symphony in our mouths.
Be sure to swish vigorously, especially between the teeth, to help reduce the acidity of the plaque colonies that are hanging around between your teeth.
3. Exercise your saliva!
Yep, we can stimulate saliva flow and thereby ‘exercise’ our salivary capacity. This is particularly important for people who are on medications or who have medical conditions that cause a decline in saliva production.
We made a video several years ago that shows a really effective strategy called ‘Mouth Probiotics’. Please bear with the silly mood I was in when we shot it!
4. Last tip for today: remember to wait to brush your teeth after a meal.
Since acids cause the minerals on the surface of our teeth to temporarily ‘soften’ and become more susceptible to demineralization, give your mouth the chance to bring the pH back up before putting a brush to your teeth.
It’s been shown that by brushing right after meals (especially meals that contain sugar) we can inadvertently damage our enamel. Our article, ‘Can brushing after a meal damage my teeth?’, explains more on this subject.
We hope these insights help you along your path to a cavity-free life!
With the information from this article in place, we have the foundation set to discuss solutions for how to remineralize our teeth, which we will discuss in the next article in this series: ‘How to reverse tooth decay with diet’.
Please comment below if you find this information helpful, and as always, if you know someone who could benefit from this information, please share it with them.
If you’d like additional support remineralizing your teeth, feel free to check out our Shine Remineralizing Tooth Whitening Powder.
Also, to learn more about how diet can support or undermine our oral health, here’s a link to check out our free video tutorial series, the 5 Steps to a Healthy Mouth.
Finally, to gain a complete understanding of how to stop tooth decay and reverse cavities, feel free to download our FREE eBook, How to Remineralize Your Teeth.
Helpful, Related Resources:
How to Stop Tooth Decay and Remineralize Your Teeth [FREE eBook]
How to Stop Cavities and Reverse Tooth Decay [article]
How teeth decay [article]
How to balance your oral flora [article]
HealThy Mouth Blend [product solution]
Saliva pH tracker [free download]
Tracking your saliva pH – how to know you are heading in the right direction [article]
pH Test Strips [product solution]
What causes tooth decay (and how to stop it) [article]
Mouth Probiotics! [video tutorial]
Can brushing after a meal damage my teeth? [article]
How to reverse tooth decay with diet [article]
Shine Remineralizing Tooth Whitening Powder [product solution]
5 Steps to a Healthy Mouth [[free video series]]