We exercise for better health, for weight loss and because it just feels good. So it’s a shame when a study comes out warning us that exercise may cause some horrible problem, like tooth decay. Before you cancel your gym membership, rest assured this is more of a problem for elite and professional athletes, and there are ways to prevent it.
A small study (which included 35 triathletes and “35 non-exercising controls”) recently published by the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports found that there was a “significant correlation” among endurance athletes and caries (tooth decay or cavities). The culprit? Changes in saliva pH.
During the study, the amount of saliva that the volunteer athletes produced lessened, making their mouths drier, regardless of what they drank during their workout. In fact, their saliva became more alkaline as the workout progressed. This excess of alkaline in the saliva is believed to cause tooth decay.
A study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine last year, evaluated athletes who participated in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Overall, out of 278 athletes from 25 different sports, the results revealed high levels of poor oral health, including dental caries (55% athletes), dental erosion (45% athletes) and periodontal disease (gingivitis among 76% athletes; periodontitis among 15% athletes). In addition, the study showed that more than 40% of athletes were ‘bothered’ by their oral health, with 28% reporting an impact on quality of life and 18% on training and performance.
The results were not caused by sugary sports drinks. However, the British Journal of Sports Medicine stated that "dehydration and local drying of the mouth during sporting activity might increase the impact of carbohydrates on caries and acidic drinks on erosion by reducing salivary flow or amount and therefore impairing the protective properties of saliva."
“We had thought sports drinks and nutrition might have the most detrimental influence on dental decay,” Dr. Cornelia Frese, a senior dentist at University Hospital Heidelberg, who led the study, told the New York Times. “But we saw no direct link between them."
The best advice, Dr. Frese says, is to stay hydrated and continue flossing and brushing regularly. If you are a serious endurance athlete, she recommends visiting a dentist with a specialty in sports dentistry.