This subject hit a nerve with me: Endurance training can hurt your teeth. Ugh! Was my first thought, more to worry about, another fear inducing headline. But, I was intrigued enough to continue reading because one aspect of my job is keeping you informed in a rational and intelligent manner.
What I learned was startling, but it is my aim to offer you reassurance, not fear in this article. Be motivated to take action steps that create solutions instead of changing out of fear alone. Don’t get me wrong. Fear can be strong motivator especially in the beginning. Maintaining new habits comes from something greater than fear: faith, courage and positive focus.
Here’s why the headline grabbed my attention: I’ve been an endurance athlete my whole life and I experienced a lot of dental problems for a period of many years. I know countless triathletes and endurance athletes who have experienced the effects of how undetected, seemingly benign oral health problems can cause a ripple effect throughout the body; potentially becoming a performance limiter.
We often overlook our oral health. We take for granted that regular brushing is enough to keep us healthy. Or, perhaps it’s too expensive or inconvenient to go to the dentist regularly. The evidence is overwhelming: Oral health is a crucial element in overall health, well-being and athletic performance (at all levels).
Why are triathletes and endurance athletes at high risk for dental erosion? Two main reasons:
1. Consuming sugary sports drinks and nutrition
2. Heavy mouth breathing
Here’s what’s going on:
Frequent small sips of sports drink while training, while helping to spare muscle glycogen, negatively impacts your teeth. Sugar (any carbohydrate) consumption increases acid producing bacteria that begins the cascade of potential problems. Most sports drinks also contain phosphoric or citric acid which erode tooth enamel. A compromised tooth is now more susceptible to bacterial build up, leading to a list of potential dental problems: plaque, cavities, gingivitis, inflammation, periodontitis, etc.
Heavy mouth breathing during endurance training, leads to dry mouth which reduces saliva flow giving bacteria an opportunity to grow and thrive. A 2014 study in The Scandinavian Journal of Sports Medicine looked 35 triathletes and 35 controls (5), the athletes showed a significantly greater erosion of tooth enamel than controls. The triathletes had much lower levels of saliva during exercise. Saliva performs a very protective function for the teeth. The longer the training session, the drier their mouths became. The more hours an athlete spent training, the greater the instances of dental erosion. Dry mouth combined with sugary sports nutrition exacerbates the potential harm.
These two elements combine to make it a challenge to keep your mouth healthy. If left unchecked, prolonged bacterial build up will negatively impact how your whole body functions and performs. Advanced dental erosion has been implicated in many disease states, such as: osteoporosis, pneumonia, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Long, hard training for days, weeks and years can leave your immune system stressed. Add to this an increased bacterial load in the mouth, forcing the immune system to struggle to keep up with demand.
Here what’s reassuring: you can improve your oral health while continuing to enjoy your endurance training and racing, even reverse and eliminate current problems. Actions you need to implement:
- Brush and floss daily
- See your dentist for check ups 2-3 times/year
- If you have any nagging tooth pain or unresolved dental problems, get this taken care of right away
- If you need ongoing specialized care, look for a sports dentist in your area
- Using a Sonicare toothbrush, water flosser (Water Pik) and Listerine will improve your oral health dramatically (in addition to brushing and flossing)
- Decrease your consumption of sports drinks and other sugary sports foods. Rinse your mouth with water after consuming sugars There is a time and place for these foods during hard training blocks and races. Work to reduce them during easy and short sessions. Instead drink plain water or coconut water. You can also add electrolytes.
- Work on more nasal breathing. This may be the hardest one to change. It takes time and focus, but can be accomplished during easier and shorter training sessions. (Nasal breathing increases the production of nitric oxide that helps to increase your lungs’ oxygen absorbing capacity and kills bacteria, viruses and other germs.)
Take care of your teeth, take care of your training, health and performance!