How to prevent tooth decay for endurance athletes
Running a marathon is no easy feat. It takes tons of training and discipline, and come race day, focus is key. We wanted to call special attention to the Chicago Marathon, because Galen Rupp took the title with a time of 2:09, making him the first American male to win Chicago since 2002.
That’s a tough cookie.
Speaking of cookies, did you know that endurance sports like running can contribute to decreased oral health, similar to the food you eat? You might be sitting in your chair with your hands in the air or rolling your eyes, because it seems almost everything these days has a negative health consequence to it. No worries, because we’ve gathered the latest research on why this happens and what you can do to prevent your favorite sports from harming your oral health.
Of course, we’d never tell you to exercise less. It has way too many benefits and is a fantastic part of a healthy lifestyle to help prevent chronic diseases, such as heart disease, obesity, Type II diabetes, stress, depression, anxiety, and more. As dental health professionals though, it’s our job to share news about ways to care for your mouth.
Endurance athletes tend to have worse dental health than non-endurance athletes.
That is not a hard and fast rule. However, according to a study in The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, long-distance runners breathed through their mouths more frequently and ate more refined foods like gels, gummies, and sports drinks to keep themselves going through training and to recover after tough workouts. These two things together create a hotbed for acid-loving bacteria to flourish.
But first, some background.
Researchers from the Department of Conservative Dentistry at the University Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany–a couple of whom happen to be marathoners–studied 70 participants, 35 in the distance athlete group and 35 in the control, or those who did not perform endurance activities. The distance group ran, biked, or swam for about 10 hours each week, took saliva tests and were examined for tooth decay. All of these tests were compared to the non-exercise group.
Here’s what they found:
Mouth breathing means less saliva.
Breathing through your nose entirely during exercise is torture. You need a lot of oxygen fast, but mouth breathing also decreases your saliva production and causes dryness. Just like sleeping with your mouth open, participants in the study experienced decreased saliva production and lower salivary pH to wash away harmful acid and bacteria on their teeth.
Two of the researchers, Cornelia Frese and her husband Falko Frese, found during tests that saliva production and pH tends to decrease during exercise but not while athletes rested. Plus, the longer participants exercised, the lower those numbers became.
Fuel for runners = fuel for acid-loving bacteria
High-carb diets and chewy, sticky foods during training give oral bacteria just the resources they need to create the acid that leads to tooth decay and cavities. All that sugar before, during and after training puts athletes’ mouths lower than the critical 5.5 pH necessary for balanced oral health. Participants in the study didn’t always have higher rates of cavities, but they certainly had greater risk for them and generally higher rates of tooth decay.
I’m an endurance athlete. How do I keep my teeth healthy?
First of all, don’t stop running, biking, or swimming. Then follow these tips:
- Rinse your mouth with water anytime you eat a goo, a gummy, or a bar. Doing that will wash away a lot of the sugar, so those bacteria won’t latch onto your teeth and start churning out acid.
- Bring floss to practice. This might seem extreme, but because those foods we mentioned above are so sticky, they’ll get stuck more easily between your teeth. Pack some floss in your bag for a post-workout cleaning.
- As much as you can, breathe through your nose. We know it’s not possible to go 100% nostrils, and it’s probably not helpful for your running mechanics, but we suggest doing a combination of mouth and nose breathing for the sake of your chompers.
Pro tip: When you breathe through your nose your nasal passages produce a compound called nitric oxide. It aids in reducing inflammation, something runners deal with from constant pavement pounding. It also helps lower blood pressure and prevent infection among many other benefits. Here’s a cool article on nitric oxide, how it helps prevent disease, and keeps our bodies in top shape. A combination of mouth and nose breathing is probably best to maximize oxygen intake and oral health.
- Brush your teeth after you workout. It can only help!
- Opt for water or coconut water instead of sugary sports drinks. Do make sure you’re getting enough electrolytes though!
The bottom line: be mindful of your lifestyle
The guidelines we’ve offered are the same basic ones everyone should follow to maintain good oral hygiene: brush your teeth, floss, avoid sugary foods and drinks, and breathe properly. Okay, that last one is new-ish.
Anytime you lead a lifestyle that’s outside the norm, whether you win the marathon or bike across the country, take special precautions to keep your teeth as fit as the rest of your body. Stay safe out there!