Now that we have established a solid understanding of the chemical structure of our teeth along with how the decay process occurs, let’s turn our attention to the perfect storm that provides a certain bacteria the opportunity to dominate the oral microbiome.
We have established that trying to rid our mouths of bacteria not only is folly but also is downright unhealthy.
The goal is to ‘balance our oral flora’.
Yes, we can help rebalance by using certain strategies like brushing with our HealThy Mouth Blend. But a ‘scorched earth, take no prisoners’ approach 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 our mouths with bacteria that help us.
With this in mind, let’s go back in the mouth and understand the cascade that consuming one snack of something sugary causes.
(We know this is a sensitive subject for many. We all know that sugar causes all sorts of problems, and don’t necessarily want to hear more. So, be sure to check the end of this article where we share certain strategies how we can help mitigate the damage of eating sugary foods.)
The sweet snack…
When we eat/drink some sugar (in any form), the pH in the plaque in our mouths drops from a normal, healthy level around 7 to 5-5.5. Incidentally, if our bodies tend to run ‘acidic’ and our normal saliva pH is 6.0-6.5, 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/alkalinity of some liquid. Commonly recognized as ranging from 0-14, the middle of 7 is the pH of pure water. Anything less than 7 is increasingly acidic. Anything greater than water 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 in the 5.0-5.5 range.
Back to how our sweet snack impacts our mouth…
While definitely acidic, a pH of 5.0-5.5 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 30-120 minutes post sugar introduction.
The bigger problem is most bacterial strains (at least the ones we want to encourage in the mouth) don’t function well at that low of a pH. Such a low pH causes them to become less active and metabolically shut down. However, strep mutans, the main bug implicated with tooth decay, thrives in this lower pH environment.
You know what’s next… Repeatedly exposing our oral microbiomes to sugar and the resulting drop in pH it causes 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 bacterial strains we want to colonize our teeth. We want the good bugs to dominate a region so strains like strep mutans have to scrap and fight for a place to hang out.
Repeated exposure to sugar actually does exactly the opposite. Over time, consuming sugary foods encourages, even downright causes, strep mutans to dominate the zone.
How sugar impacts oral health ‘outside the mouth’…
Unfortunately, sugar does more than cause a decline in pH in the mouth and the resulting rise in strep mutans.
Eating sugar also negatively impacts our oral health by causing the flow of fluid in our teeth to reverse from cleansing our teeth to sucking sugar (and the bugs implicated with tooth decay) into our teeth.
We have written extensively about this fascinating mechanism, called ‘dentinal fluid flow’ in a previous article titled ‘What causes tooth decay (and how to stop it).‘
Saliva to the rescue…
Our saliva tirelessly rescues us from the low pH post eating something sweet.
In fact, saliva has multiple mechanisms to neutralize the circumstances associated with tooth decay.
One mechanism saliva provides is to buffer the acids through a series of steps. In almost like a relay race style, 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 buffering is accomplished by minerals in our saliva. Other mechanisms rely on proteins in saliva to buffer acids in the mouth. Through this ‘multi-mechanism’ effort, our systems neutralize acids in the mouth as quickly as possible to restore a pH that supports remineralization.
Another main job of saliva is what is called ‘oral clearance’.
Oral clearance, also called salivary clearance, is to simply flush acids (and bad bugs that some of the proteins in saliva have rounded up) out of the mouth. While it may not be a pleasant thought to some, we eat 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 everyday. Oral clearance is another tool that saliva applies to stop the damage in our mouths.
Rather than having to neutralize all the sugar in the mouth, through oral clearance, we have built in mechanisms that send sugars and the acids along their digestive journey.
How sweet flavor impacts saliva production
So, if we clear acids from damaging our teeth by buffering them and by oral clearance, how does the sweet flavor 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 (thus why chewing xylitol gum, for example, has been proven to lower 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 us 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, of course, is when we eat sweet foods, especially very regularly, it becomes the norm and our natural salivary mechanisms aren’t strongly activated to neutralize the damage.
Solutions to help mitigate the damage in the mouth
Here are four super simple ways we all can help stop acids from destroying our enamel.
1. Swish 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 temp water with us while eating. Vigorously swish 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 temp water without lemon), we provide even more relief and a quicker recovery to a healthier mouth pH. This helps reduce the time that strep mutans can establish itself as the ‘top dog’ of the symphony in our mouths while encouraging oral clearance.
Be sure to swish vigorously, especially between the teeth, to help reduce the acidity of plaque colonies hanging around between your teeth.
3. Exercise your saliva!
Yep, we can stimulate and thereby ‘exercise’ our salivary capacity. This is particularly important for those on medications, or with conditions which 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 ‘soften’ and become more at risk of demineralizing, give your mouth the chance to bring the pH back up before putting a brush to your teeth. It’s been shown that we can actually brush away our enamel by brushing right after meals (especially ones that contain sugar). Our article ‘Can brushing after a meal damage my teeth?’ dives into this subject well.
With the pieces of this article in place, we have the foundation set to discuss solutions how to remineralize our teeth, which we will discuss in next week’s article, ‘Understanding the mechanisms of remineralization’.
We hope these insights help you along your path to a cavity free life!
Helpful, Related Resources:
How to stop cavities and reverse tooth decay [article]
How teeth decay [article]
How to balance your oral flora [article]
Saliva pH tracker [free download]
Tracking your saliva pH – how to know you are heading in the right direction [article]
What causes tooth decay (and how to stop it) [article]