Reader's Digest Asia Pacific


Seven healthy habits that can harm your teeth – and how to stop the damage.


I’ VE ALWAYS BEEN DILIGENT about brushing my teeth at least twice a day. (Who doesn’t love a minty- fresh smile?) But six or seven years ago, I learned that my technique was sorely lacking. I tended to rush through the job, scrubbing furiously, and after decades of overly vigorous cleaning, my teeth had developed an uncomforta­ble sensitivit­y to heat and cold. My dental hygienist explained that the enamel, or protective layer, was wearing thin and exposing the more sensitive dentine underneath. Among her suggestion­s: brush gently up and down rather than aggressive­ly, and take your time – at least two minutes.

“It’s a very typical example,” says dentist Dr Euan Swan. “A patient is proud of the fact that they’re brushing so hard, but they’re damaging their teeth.”

When we first develop habits to improve our wellbeing, we aren’t always aware of the problems they could cause for our pearly whites. “Teeth tend to be a lower priority in terms of health, so some things tend to get missed,” says endodontis­t Dr Mark Parhar, who specialise­s in the soft inner tissues of the teeth. Here are seven healthy practices that could be trashing your teeth – and how to stop the damage.

1 BRUSHING AFTER YOU EAT Does your morning routine include grabbing a toothbrush immediatel­y after breakfast? Kudos to you for brushing regularly, but your timing needs tweaking. When you consume something acidic, such as oranges or tomatoes, the enamel temporaril­y softens and becomes susceptibl­e to abrasive wear. If you brush your teeth, especially forcefully, you can remove enamel, which will leave your chompers feeling sensitive. It gets worse as you get older, since your gums tend to recede with age and expose more root surface. (Tooth roots aren’t covered by enamel, but rather a thinner layer of a substance called cementum.) If you want to exercise caution, wait approximat­ely 30 minutes to brush. “Saliva is a buffering agent and will bring the acidity of the oral environmen­t down, but it takes time,” says dental hygienist Geraldine Cool. Eating some types of dairy, especially cheddar cheese, can raise the pH inside the mouth and release calcium and other substances that fight plaque; and rinsing

your mouth with water can help wash away debris wedged between teeth. You can also brush before eating something acidic instead of after.

2 MEDICATION­S THAT CAUSE DRY MOUTH You may be diligent about controllin­g a chronic health condition by taking prescribed medicines as directed. Unfortunat­ely, if you’re on any one or more of the hundreds of drugs – including certain antidepres­sants and pain medication­s – that have the side effect of reducing saliva flow, your oral health could suffer. “Patients on those medication­s tend to have a dry mouth, so they’re at a higher risk of developing tooth decay,” says Swan, “because the saliva isn’t there to physically wash food debris away or buffer acids.”

The solution isn’t to stop your medication, unless your doctor can offer an alternativ­e without that side effect. Instead, try sipping water throughout the day. You can increase saliva flow with sugarless gum, mints containing xylitol, or sprays, gels and tablets designed specifical­ly for dry mouth.

3 EXERCISING WITHOUT DENTAL PROTECTION There are many ways physical activity benefits your body. It helps with cardiovasc­ular health, weight control and mood management, for starters. Participat­ing in impact sports such as rugby or martial arts, however, can do a number on your teeth if they aren’t properly protected. A custom mouth guard (fitted by a dentist) provides a cushion around your teeth in case of an impact to the face. They can be invaluable when there’s a risk of physical contact while playing sport.

“When you don’t wear a mouth guard, you see teeth chipping or being knocked out – damage that requires a lot of work to repair,” says Parhar, who has a background in sports dentistry.


Intense exercise may also affect the quantity and quality of your saliva. A 2015 study of triathlete­s in The Scandinavi­an Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports showed that when they were active, their saliva flow slowed down while pH went up. Both changes can have a negative impact on teeth, which suggests that anyone active in sports should practise meticulous oral hygiene.

4 DRINKING LEMON WATER Swigging water with fresh lemon juice is said to help digestion, strengthen

immunity and cleanse your body of toxins. “I find it nice as a hot drink in the morning, especially when it’s cold out,” says 64-year-old Christine Peets, who drinks lemon water throughout the day to calm her digestive issues and stay hydrated.

She became concerned, though, after a relative – also a fan of the drink – discovered it was weakening her tooth enamel, so Peets checked with her dental hygienist. Lemon water may be a popular trend, but acidic fruit juice is a major culprit when it comes to dental erosion from diet. “Even though you’re diluting lemon juice with water, you’re still raising the acid level of the mouth. If you sip, and you’re doing that two or three times throughout the day over a prolonged period of time, I’d be concerned,” says Cool.

Peets’s hygienist warned her to delay brushing right away after consuming lemon water, and also recommende­d trying toothpaste for sensitive teeth. Drinking quickly is not a full fix, but it’s much better than sipping the tart mixture at length; using a straw may also lessen detrimenta­l effects. Check that the water isn’t too hot, as warmer temperatur­es intensify the tooth damage. And if you’re going to drink the acidic beverage, Cool suggests having a drink of ordinary water soon afterwards.

5 CHEWING ON ICE Ice is free of kilojoules and sugar, will cool you down on a hot day, is usually pH-neutral and won’t stick to your teeth. Isn’t crunching ice much more wholesome, therefore, than chewing on sweet things? Turns out it has its downsides. “Ice is very hard,” says periodonti­st Dr Hendrike van Drie. “Chewing on it damages teeth


by causing cracks and fractures in enamel and restoratio­ns.” Van Drie adds that constant exposure to cold temperatur­es can lead to dentine hypersensi­tivity.

“I’ve got a few ice chewers in my practice, and I’m always encouragin­g them to break that habit. You just don’t want to crunch hard things,” says Cool.

“The enamel is probably the hardest tissue in our bodies, but when there’s chronic wear and tear, there’s an increased chance that it can flatten the contours of the teeth,” she adds. Sometimes the wear is severe enough to change the way the bite fits together, triggering pain in jaw muscles. She says ice can be nice, but only if you let it melt in your mouth.

6 SIPPING WINE SLOWLY It’s true that alcohol in moderation may offer benefits, including reducing the risk of diabetes, heart attack or stroke. Red wine, in particular, contains compounds that seem to raise good cholestero­l and boost your heart health. But if spreading out your drinking means you’re nursing a single glass of wine for two hours, your teeth are being constantly compromise­d.

“Sipping wine means an exposure to acid every time a sip is taken,” van Drie says. That’s not to say you should chug-a-lug, but do drink water when you’re having a glass of wine, or nibble on a piece of cheese to buffer the acid. And note that not all wines pose the same problems for your teeth. “White wine has a higher pH and causes more and faster damage,” says van Drie. On the other hand, red can stain your pearly whites. Thinking of switching to carbonated water instead? “Sparkling water is also acidic and can harm teeth when drunk constantly.”

7 OPTING FOR SPRING WATER Certainly, water is a much better go-to beverage than fizzy drinks or juice, but if bottled spring water is the only kind you drink, you might be missing out on a potential 25 per cent reduction in tooth decay.

Fluoridate­d tap water is endorsed by the World Health Organizati­on and is well proven to reduce tooth decay in both children and adults. It’s costeffect­ive and it’s safe (levels are low and monitored, and it’s impossible to drink enough tap water to reach fluoride toxicity).

“When you drink fluoridate­d water, it gets into your system, so your saliva has a low level of fluoride in it that’s constantly benefiting your teeth,” says Swan. It’s especially protective for older people with exposed root surface that’s more vulnerable to decay.

Try to drink at least some tap water every day. It’s OK to use filters, as long as they are not the type that removes fluoride.

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