CREDIT: ANADOLU AGENCY
“To enjoy the glow of good health, you must exercise.” So said Gene Tunney, an American boxer and world heavyweight champion between 1926 and 1928. He’s not far off. Keeping physically active is crucial to leading a healthy life, and exercising regularly can reduce the risk of numerous physical and mental maladies.
But it’s not all rosy, because exercise, according to new research, can leave our teeth far from glowing. The study, published in the journal Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology, looked at more than 350 sportsmen and women from 11 professional and Olympic disciplines, including GB Cycling, GB Athletics, England Rugby, Reading FC and Team Sky.
Almost half of those screened (49.1pc) were found to have untreatedtooth decay; 77pc suffered inflamed guns, which can be an early sign of gum disease; and over a third (39pc) complained of bleeding gums when brushing teeth – a sign of inflammation. Of the athletes tested, 97pc reported brushing their teeth twice a day, higher than the average.
The study’s lead author, Professor Ian Needleman of the Eastman Dental Institute at UCL, said: “Every sport examined revealed significant levels of oral ill-health with the overall risk of tooth decay being higher for an elite athlete than the general population.”
There are a number of theories behind poor dental health among top-level athletes. One factor is that elite sportspeople rely on carb-heavy diets. Carbohydrates can linger in the mouth and provide a feasting ground for bacteria as they break down into sugars.
“Things like pasta, potatoes – crisps are probably the worst. They can get stuck in the fissures in your teeth, where they break down and can cause decay,” says celebrity dentist Dr Richard Marques of Wimpole Street Dental. “Even bread particles can get stuck in the grooves. You shouldn’t brush immediately because your teeth are weakened after eating. Instead, chew sugar-free gum or mints.”
Sports that feature a heavy airflow, such as cycling and running, are also to blame, as heavy breathing dries the mouth and teeth lose the protection offered by saliva. Dr Marques agrees: “If you exercise a lot you can get xerostomia, which is basically dry mouth. Saliva cleanses and washes teeth, keeping bacteria and plaque away, so without it the enamel is exposed to decay.”
Stress was also cited, including several reports of vomiting before events, introducing corrosive stomach acids to the mouth. “There’s a lot of acid in vomit,” Dr Marques explains. “Stomach acids are used to break down foods, so they’re quite acidic, and acid wears down tooth enamel quite badly, so it’s definitely a problem.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the study found no link between an increase of sugary sports drinks and higher levels of tooth decay – a conclusion supported by previous studies. Dr Marques, however, suggests sports drinks and protein shakes tend to contain a lot of sugar and acid, so should be consumed with caution.
It’s not the first time experts have analysed the link between athletes and dental hygiene, though Professor Needleman describes it as “the most methodologically robust” survey to date.
In 2015, The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports found a similar correlation between between heavy training and dental problems, while research on athletes at the 2012 Olympics found the majority showed signs of “poor oral health” despite access to good dental care.
And in 2014, researchers from the dental school at University Hospital Heidelberg in Germany compared 35 competitive triathletes with 35 equally matched regular adults. Of the athletes who underwent a 35-minute run, saliva production decreased and mouths were drier, no matter what they consumed. The more time an athlete dedicated to training, the more likely they would have cavities.
The chemical composition of the saliva, furthermore, became more alkaline, which can aid the development of plaque on teeth.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for those who exercise a lot. Staying as hydrated as possible can help keep saliva production up while practicing sport. Hydrating with water – from the tap, which contains fluoride – or hypotonic drinks is preferable (usually less than 4g of sugar per 100ml), but if you require sugary energy drinks or isotonics (4-8g of sugar per 100ml), consider a high-fluoride toothpaste or mouthwash.
You can also try breathing nasally rather than orally, which can help keep the mouth moist – open-mouthed breathing dries it out. There are also sports dentists who can give specialist treatments to athletes.