Chewing Gum and Dental Health
You’d be hard pressed to find a person who doesn’t enjoy chewing gum at least occasionally. Both children and adults love chewing gums. They are fun to chew and come in a great variety of flavors. Some are consumed purely as a confectionery, while some are popular for their supposed benefits for dental health (even though they themselves are fine tasting, too). Let’s examine the validity of these claims and whether chewing gums do indeed help you maintain that pearly string of whites!
It has long been known that chewing stimulates the release of saliva. Saliva is extremely important for the maintenance of good oral health, as it regulates the pH levels inside the mouth and prevents the demineralization of your teeth. It neutralizes the acids and protects the teeth.
It is no wonder that the ancient civilizations used rudimentary chewing gums as well. The Ancient Greeks used to chew plant resin, called mastic, both for its refreshing pine flavor and its health benefits. It helps reduce the occurrence of gingivitis and plaque.
Other peoples also used, and still use, various resins, tree bark and plants to chew on, which is supposedly good for the overall oral health. The chewing of such rubbery materials also has an advantage of cleaning the teeth. Food plaque and debris won’t stick to the teeth, as the chewing process will mechanically remove it.
Modern science has vindicated these practices, at least in general terms. Any chewing gum will help you remove debris and aid in saliva production, but it the jury is still out whether this effect is more beneficial than the harm posed by sugar in typical chewing gums, even though the amounts are small. However, a large number of chewing gum brands not contain any sugar at all. This is partly because the gums are very small and light and the flavor quickly deteriorates as the sugar is dissolved. Artificial sweeteners used in such gums are thousands of times sweeter than sugar and the taste is more pronounced as a result.
Luckily, such gums also reduce the harmful effects of sugar, as the sweeteners are chemically different and the bacteria cannot use them as food. In fact, the American Dental Association condones the use of chewing gums that contain xylitol. Xylitol is an alcohol sugar that is non-fermentable and cannot be used by cavity-causing bacteria as a food source. It particularly inhibits the development of Streptococcus mutans, one of the organisms that is most responsible for the development of dental caries. Bacteria ingest xylitol into the cell since it is similar to other sugars, but die as they cannot use it as food. Sorbitol, another alcohol sugar, is also useful, although less so.
The official recommendations of the American Dental Association state that chewing gum for 20 minutes after a meal help prevent tooth decay by increasing the production of saliva. The gum should be sugar-free. If the gum contains xylitol, then the positive effect is even larger.
Of course, this does not mean that just chewing gum is enough. You should still brush your teeth twice a day and floss once a day, and chewing gum is not a substitute for proper oral hygiene habits.
You’d be glad to know that the benefits of chewing gum are not only confined to your teeth. There is some evidence that chewing gum improves your cognitive functions, mainly working memory and alertness. The mechanism is unclear, but nerve stimulation is likely to play a role. The benefits are the largest when you are tired and sleepy. Unfortunately, the effect is temporary and subsides once you spit out the gum.
It should be noted that there are some contraindications for chewing gum. If you suffer from phenylketonuria, avoid gums that contain aspartame, a source of phenylalanine. Even if you do not have such health issues, overindulgence can easily cause flatulence and stomach upset. Most sugar-free chewing gums have a laxative effect due to sugar alcohol sweeteners sorbitol, maltitol and xylitol.
Chewing gum is also great for treatment of bad breath (halitosis). Choose a strong minty gum and chew it through the day. The effect of greater saliva flow, along with a minty scent, will neutralize or greatly minimize bad breath.
As you can see, chewing gum can be a great help in maintaining perfect dental health. It is an important tool in your arsenal, and along with regular check-ups and proper dental hygiene, you can be sure your teeth will be as healthy as they can.