How Sugar Can Hurt Your Teeth

Donuts–sweets that can hurt teeth

Our teeth are highly underrated, considering how important they are. You only ever get two sets, so once your adult teeth grow in, you’ve got to treat ‘em right! There is a reason why teeth are always part of a general physical assessment. If our teeth are decaying, it is a good indicator that things are not going very well in other areas of our bodies.

Unfortunately, most of us do not spend enough time caring for our teeth. Untreated dental caries is the most common disease affecting humans worldwide and the primary culprit is sugar. Even if it tastes amazing, sugar can hurt your teeth. If you eat too much of it, the chances are high that you’ll start to get toothaches or cavities.

Sugar is in Everything

The fact that sugar hurts your teeth is a widely accepted idea, so much so that it has become an afterthought. We know our teeth are sensitive to sweets, yet we tend to ignore them. But now more than ever, we need to be vigilant about sugar. Why? It is absolutely everything. Every low-fat product is loaded with sugar. Every healthy granola bar is packed with enough sugar to rival a can of soda. Even alternative lifestyle foods intended to lower meat consumption are made palatable by pumping them with sugar. Sugars and more food products now than ever before. In the past, dentists used to say to avoid candy and sweets. This notion is somewhat outdated. Sugar is in almost everything.

How Sugar Affects Teeth and Gums

So how exactly does sugar hurt our teeth and gums? Does it directly poke holes when we aren’t looking? Can your teeth be more sensitive to sugar than others? Cavities are caused by opportunistic bacteria in your mouth. These bacteria love to munch on the sugar residue left over after we eat sweets. They rush over to it just like we do. Here’s how it works:

When you eat carbohydrates, an enzyme called salivary amylase breaks them down into simple sugars. You can be eating rice, potatoes, fruit, or even a candy bar– they’re all broken down with this enzyme. This makes it easier for your stomach and intestines to digest the food further down the line.

Bad Bacteria

Food particles in and around your teeth sit and eventually get turned into sugar. Sugar is every bacteria’s best friend. It’s their primary food source and the most efficient way they can store energy. A mouthful of sugar may hurt our teeth, but it is a feast for all the microscopic party-goers.

Sugar eating bacteria that can hurt your teeth

Among the millions of bacteria that will crowd around the food particle party, potentially pathogenic bacteria are present. Pathogenic means that they can make your teeth more sensitive to sugar. The primary culprits, named Streptococcus mutans and Streptococcus sobrinus don’t usually cause much harm if you take care of your teeth. The problem is that they produce acid after eating the leftover sweets, resulting in your teeth becoming more sensitive to pain. These are called cariogenic bacteria.

Acid In Your Teeth Makes You Sensitive To Sweets

Acid, as you may know, is a corrosive substance. Any time acid is mentioned in the movies, it’s used to melt a hole into something. When this acid comes in contact with our teeth, it does exactly that. That’s how sugar hurts your teeth, with the acid produced by tiny creatures eating it. It leaves a microscopic groove. This may be tiny, but if you repeat that process in the same spot, over time, that groove turns into a hole. And voilà, you have a cavity that wakes you up at night.

Remember, this is not a one-time thing. It only takes a few minutes for amylase to break all carbohydrates down into simple sugars. It only takes an hour or two for Streptococcus mutans to be on those sugar mounds that can make your teeth sensitive. When this bacteria species populates, it tends to hold court and overrun an entire area. This is why cavities grow so rapidly in certain spots. It’s the combination of food getting stuck there most often, and this potentially pathogenic streptococcus species residing where they know the food will be.

Who is Susceptible

Smiling kid

Children love sugar, and they often don’t realize the importance of limiting how much they eat. Since we know sugar and sweets are a direct line to sensitive teeth, it makes sense that children are among the most susceptible to them. Another factor that we have to take into account is the density of enamel in kids’ teeth. The enamel of primary teeth is much thinner than permanent teeth. They’re both made up of the same stuff, mostly hydroxyapatite, but the distance between the enamel and the underlying nerves and blood vessels is less. That means that it takes a lot less time for sugar to hurt these teeth.

Even more alarming, a mother or primary caregiver can transfer S. mutans to a baby, causing even earlier colonization.

What You Can Do About It

All this info may seem like a bummer. That doesn’t change the fact that sugar can hurt teeth. We can choose to start caring for our teeth.

1. Fewer Sweets Means Less Sensitive Teeth

The first thing we should be doing is limiting the amount of sugar we eat. Now, there is a huge debate surrounding whether or not sugar and carbohydrates cause more negative than good. In the context of tooth decay, it is best to not give mutans streptococci any more fuel than we need to. The less sugar you eat, the less likely you will reach for a sugary snack when you’re hungry. Sugar makes us feel good — It’s a happy macromolecule. Because of that, it’s easy to form a habit. Reaching for sugar snacks gives a constant food source for the bacteria that can hurt your teeth.

2. Brush Often

The next thing we should do is brush our teeth often. We should be brushing at least twice a day. Sure, that bit of advice is repeated over and over again. But how many times have we reached for a cup of coffee to mask morning breath? How many times have we fallen asleep watching TV? In those very common scenarios, we most likely forgot to brush our teeth. Brushing upon waking and before you sleep is the bare minimum. For added protection against cavities, it is advised that you brush your teeth an hour after eating. Before that, you can chew gum or swish some water.

Sugar cubes on pink background. Your teeth can be sensitive to sugar.

3. Floss

The third thing you should do is floss. Remember, sugar particles that can hurt your teeth are not only on the surface. More often than not they’re stuck between your teeth, making them sensitive to sweets. This is why you can’t see most cavities. They are from the food and the bacteria buildup caused by not flossing. It takes a few seconds out of your day, and it saves you a world of pain and discomfort.

4. See A Dentist

Lastly, you should see a dentist twice a year. Often, we put it off because we know we didn’t brush enough or floss enough. We don’t want to know if our teeth can be sensitive to sugar. That is still not a reason to not see the dentist. They are not going to be disappointed. They are obligated to tell you to take care of your teeth more, but that’s what doctors do. Go visit your dentist and get your teeth cleaned. Take the whole family with you.

Grow a Healthy Relationship with Sugar

The impact of healthy teeth cannot be emphasized enough. We all want a beautiful smile. We want the confidence to openly express joy and laughter without being self-conscious. If our teeth are in bad shape, we might not be as expressive. Everybody notices when teeth are missing or decaying. We can see it, smell it, and even hear it. This is reason enough to limit sugar and brush regularly.

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