So for the past two blogs, I’ve discussed what causes cavities which is bacteria producing acid after eating carbohydrates. In this article, I wanted to discuss how to prevent cavities. As the old axiom goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure, prevention of cavities is much cheaper than actually fixing cavities. Most people understand the importance of brushing and flossing, and there have been plenty of articles written about fluoride. I wanted to focus on three lesser-known yet useful cavity preventions. The first is the natural saliva your mouth produces, the second is xylitol which is sugar from birch trees, and the third is baking soda.
Your body’s natural defense against cavities is saliva and helps in three ways. First, the water in the saliva helps remove food and sugar from the teeth. Second, saliva has antibodies in it which is believed target oral bacteria that causes cavities. The third important part of saliva is that it provides minerals to the teeth like calcium that can help heal small cavities that haven’t penetrated deep into the tooth. Unfortunately, many common medications such as those to treat high blood pressure, depression, and diabetes lower the amount of saliva that your body produces and can cause dry mouth. People who suffer from dry mouth are at a much higher risk for cavities. To help restore natural salivary flow, medication can be prescribed, but it is often only used in the worst cases. What many people use are over the counter products such as Biotene which gives helps keep the mouth from drying out during the day. Many people who suffer from dry mouth find sucking on candy helps stimulate salivary glands and gives relief, but unfortunately, this constant source of sugar causes cavities. For people that need sugar to help them get through the day due to dry mouth, I recommend xylitol.
Xylitol is a natural sugar produced by birch trees and helps prevent cavities because bacteria cannot digest it. The bacteria will consume xylitol in the same manner they consume other simple sugars, but the xylitol cannot be metabolized by the bacteria so they starve to death. To me, another benefit of xylitol is that it tastes about as sweet as table sugar yet has 40% less calories than table sugar. A few products that I recommend are Spry and Dr. John’s Candies. Spry can be found at health food stores and occasionally Whole Foods will have it. It comes in both mints, gums, and toothpastes but I like the mints the best personally. I’ve only found Dr. John’s Candies at dental trade shows and I think you can only buy it online. However, the chocolates are pretty darn good, and if you have a sweet tooth, you will like them. To get the full effect of xylitol, you should eat it 3 to 5 times a day (depending on what research you follow) which won’t be that hard to do. The biggest downside to xylitol is trying to find it. The only way to consistently get it is through online retailers (like Amazon or Dr. John’s).
Baking Soda for Oral Health
Contrasted to the rarity of finding xylitol, baking soda is easy to buy and probably one of the most effective ways of preventing cavities after toothpaste. Many people have probably brushed with baking soda at some point in their lives. I find that most people either love the taste or hate it. If you are in the group that likes the way it makes your mouth feel, I encourage you to use it if you ever run out of toothpaste by accident or you are cheap. Baking soda is great because it cleans very well but is not very abrasive. It’s actually less abrasive than any toothpaste. This is important because brushing your teeth more than twice a day with most toothpaste can damage your gums and teeth, but brushing more often with baking soda will not cause negative side effects. You’d have to brush around 100 times per day to have issues with abrasion from baking soda. It also helps neutralize acids in your mouth to help prevent cavities and some studies have shown that it helps kill bad bacteria in your mouth. I find that most of my patients that use this are older patients and generally these patients do not have cavities in their mouths. While this is far from a scientific study, I’ve been very impressed with baking soda and I think it’s a great toothpaste substitute.
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Obviously this article on prevention and this series on cavities is far from complete. Very long, thorough, and boring books have been written on cavities and how to prevent them. I’ve had to read them during dental school and re-read them for this series. However, despite cavities being at epidemic levels in our society and second only to the common cold, it’s certainly the most preventable illness that affects us. I hope that these three articles have given you some good ideas of how to improve your oral health and keep a few more dollars in your wallet. I also hope it has given you some good ideas of things to talk about your dentist or dental hygienist at your next visit.