Tips for healthier teeth

Reviewed by our expert panel
Tips for healthier teeth

There are good reasons for having a healthy smile. Oral hygiene has an impact on your overall health.

We all know that super-clean feeling after a visit to the hygienist – but once it slips from our memory, it’s easy to allow personal dental  care to slip, too. But lack of dental care doesn’t just risk potential future teeth and gum problems.

According to researchers, people with gum disease are almost twice as likely to suffer from coronary artery disease, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. This may be because when bacteria enter the bloodstream through sore gums they can contribute to the formation of blood clots.

“If you have gum disease, the bacteria gets into the blood system, which is not a good thing,” says Professor Damien Walmsley, scientific adviser to the British Dental Association. “And the studies are starting to show that you are putting your health in jeopardy if you don’t look after your teeth.”

The chain reaction of sugar on our teeth is simple. Bacteria cause decay by eating sugary leftovers and turning them into acid. The acid rots the teeth and makes cavities. Quite simply, if teeth aren’t exposed to sugar, they are less likely to decay.

“Popping mints in your mouth all day may feel fresh,” says Professor Walmsley, “but your teeth will be constantly undergoing a sugar bath.” Ultimately, the more times teeth are subjected to sugar, the more acid is produced and the greater the chances of decay. It’s worse to eat sugary foods between meals than at mealtimes (when more saliva is produced to wash away the sugar).

According to a study at the New York State University, people who eat less than 500mg calcium a day are twice as likely to suffer from gum disease and tooth decay than those who eat more.

Foods that are good for our teeth tend to be foods that aren’t only low in sugar and acidity but also contain high levels of phosphate, calcium and protein. This means unsweetened dairy products, such as low-fat milk, natural yoghurt and cheese.

  • Milk does contain the dairy sugar lactose, which can be fermented by bacteria in dental plaque, but this is less likely to cause tooth decay than other, added sugars.
  • Cheese seems to be especially good at protecting teeth from dental decay — but its fat content means it needs to be consumed in moderate portions.
  • Other good sources of calcium include tofu, almonds, baked beans and canned fish.

It’s easy to think of gum care as a secondary concern but keeping gums clean is vital. Your teeth are held in place by gums and bone. If you suffer with gum disease, you lose that support and your teeth become loose (in the worst case, you might lose them).

Bleeding could mean there is active gum disease that needs treating so see your dentist for a diagnosis. If a problem is found, a hygienist will be able to instruct you on how to deal with it.

Once you know how to care for your gums, you are likely to notice a marked improvement. In particular, smokers and people with diabetes need to take extra care as they are more prone to gum disease.

Saliva has a lot of good cleansing properties. If you have a very dry mouth, you are at slightly higher risk of tooth decay. For some people this might be because of a medical condition or because of tablets they are taking but there are saliva substitutes available — and chewing sugar-free gum can also help with salivary flow.

Plaque is a major culprit in damaging our teeth and gums. When food debris hardens it turns to plaque and tartar. This harbours bacteria that can be very damaging to your teeth and lead to gum disease. But if you take good care of your mouth, by getting your teeth-brushing technique checked by your dentist, brushing twice a day and flossing once a day, you will be doing a good job of minimising the risks.

Food and drinks that can cause tooth decay are high in sugar. This includes those with added sugar but also fruit juices and dried fruit, which has a naturally high sugar content (fresh fruit don’t seem to have as damaging an effect).

Starchy stuff that sticks to teeth, such as fried snacks, can also be fermented and increase the risk of decay.

Acidic soft drinks such as colas or fruity drinks can be damaging to enamel. The acid in these drinks can soften tooth enamel and, in extreme cases, cause it to be lost permanently. That’s why waiting one hour after eating before you brush is particularly important if you have had an acidic drink -doing it too soon can actually brush the enamel away.

Red wine, smoking and even tea can discolour your teeth, which is another good health reason to stop smoking and cut down on the alcohol. If you are worried about the colour of your teeth, check with your dentist. It could be that they are decayed or you aren’t brushing properly. Just going for a simple clean could help. If you’re considering a whitening treatment, though, ask your dentist to recommend a product rather than just picking one up over the counter.

Only two in five Kiwi adults regularly visit a dental professional for a check-up rather than for a dental problem. But people who don’t visit the dentist regularly (or only visit when they have a problem) have much worse dental health overall. A study by the New Zealand Dental Association found adults who usually only visited for dental problems:

  • had over twice the number of decayed teeth, and more teeth missing, on average
  • had more severe lifetime dental decay
  • were twice as likely to have experienced oral health impacts on their quality of life in the past year.

Cost is a reason often given for delaying a visit to the dentist. But the cost of regular checks is likely to be cheaper than the cost of major work down the track if you ignore problems.

  • Put a small amount of fluoride toothpaste on your brush and use small rotating movements on the tooth and into the gum line. Don’t use harsh, horizontal brushing strokes.
  • Angle the brush so it gets just under the gum as well. To clean between the teeth, use floss or interdental brushes (remember to curve the floss in a C-shape around the tooth at the gumline to clean the neck of the tooth).
  • Wait an hour after eating before brushing to avoid damaging the enamel. Brush for two minutes then floss.
  • Replace your brush every three to four months or as soon as the bristles start to splay.
  • If you’re out and can’t brush, rinse out your mouth with water.
  • A soft-bristle toothbrush with a small head is recommended by the New Zealand Dental Association.

According to the New Zealand Dental Association, you should start to clean your child’s teeth as soon as the first baby tooth comes through the gums. Use only a smear of fluoride toothpaste. Once they can hold a toothbrush, here’s how to help them:

  • Teach them to brush for two minutes morning and night.
  • Once your child is six-years old, start using a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste.
  • Discourage eating or swallowing toothpaste.
  • Take them with you when you go for your own dental check-up to get them accustomed to the experience gradually.
  • Remember: dental care is free until they turn 18.
  • Reduce sugary and acidic foods and restrict them to mealtimes.
  • And for those yet to be born… Babies’ teeth are formed while in the womb so if you’re pregnant, it is really important to get plenty of teeth-friendly nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D.

The acids in certain food and drinks can temporarily soften the enamel on the tooth’s surface. Often such food and drinks are considered part of a healthy diet, including fruit juices, salad dressings and some fruit. If softened enamel is not re-hardened, it can be vulnerable and prone to wear – a process known as acid wear.

Acid wear can affect the look of teeth, causing them to become discoloured or translucent. To avoid acid wear, it is important to minimise the time acidic food and drinks are in contact with your teeth. Drink plenty of water to maintain hydration levels and avoid brushing your teeth straight after eating or drinking acid-containing foods, when enamel is at its softest.

“It’s worse to eat sugary foods between meals than at mealtimes (when more saliva is produced to wash away the sugar).”

First published: Jul 2012

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