You try to take care of your teeth -- you don't even touch candy or cookies. Why, then, do your teeth show signs of damage and decay? Here are five surprising possibilities you may want to explore and ask your general dentist about.
1. Sleep Apnea
If you snore, chances are that you suffer from a breathing problem known as sleep apnea. This condition occurs when the jaw moves out of its ideal alignment or the soft palate becomes overly relaxed during sleep. Sleep apnea deprives the body and brain of oxygen, causing sufferers to experience headaches, irritability, "brain fog," and other symptoms on awakening. There are even indications that it can promote heart problems and shorten the lifespan.
Nor do your teeth escape the potential dangers of sleep apnea. The condition forces you to breathe (loudly) through your mouth all night long, which dries out the layer of saliva protecting your teeth from bacterial infiltration. Once bacteria have a free ride onto your teeth and gums, tooth decay and periodontal disease can easily set in.
GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), more commonly referred to as acid reflux or simply heartburn, is a digestive issue that typically strikes during sleep or when sufferers are reclining. Stomach acid and/or undigested food finds its way out of the stomach, rising through the esophagus and sometimes as far as the mouth. This condition has been associated with precancerous esophageal lesions, chest pain, chronic coughing, sore throats, and tooth damage.
- Stomach acid is so highly concentrated that it can etch the surfaces of tooth enamel, creating pits, craters, thin spots, and sharp edges. The acid penetrates the enamel layer by layer, weakening it until the tooth becomes vulnerable to cracks, breaks, and cavities.
- If your GERD strikes only when you sleep, you might not even know you have it. Ask your general dentist whether your teeth are showing signs of unusually rapid wear, since this may indicate an acid reflux problem.
Alcoholic beverages may not attack the teeth directly, but they do cause changes in the body that can endanger your pearly whites. While the occasional drink isn't likely to make an appreciable difference, long-term alcohol abuse can put you at serious risk for tooth and gum disease in the following ways:
- Alcohol tends to reduce saliva production, exposing the dried-out teeth and gums to dangerous bacteria just as sleep apnea does.
- Excessive drinking can contribute to GERD, increasing the odds that stomach acid may back up onto your teeth.
- Chronic alcohol consumption can eventually alter the cell division in oral tissues, increasing your risk for oral cancer. If you need surgery to extract the cancer, you may lose teeth in the bargain.
Bruxism -- tooth grinding and/or clenching -- occurs as a subconscious habit, so you may have been doing it all your life without ever realizing it, especially during sleep. In some cases a faulty alignment between the upper and lower jaws encourages this habit, while in others, emotional tension is the prime contributor. The resulting pressure on your teeth may cause them to wear down prematurely, crack, or break. You may also experience jaw pain and other discomfort.
Fortunately, modern dentistry can go a long way toward resolving your bruxism. Ask your general dentist whether a custom-fitted night guard can protect your teeth while you sleep. If you have a severe jaw misalignment, you might even look into surgery as a more permanent fix.
5. "Healthy" Foods and Drinks
You've probably heard all about how sugary snacks and other poor dietary choices can damage your teeth -- but did you know that "healthy" foods and beverages can harm them too? High acid content typically lies at the heart of this apparent contradiction.
- Citrus fruits and fruit juices may pack lots of healthy vitamins, but the citric acid they contain can weaken tooth enamel, promoting tooth damage. (The fact that many fruit juices also contain added sugar only makes things worse.) Always rinse your mouth with water after consuming these products,
- Carbohydrates play a necessary role in the diet, but starchy carbohydrates such as potatoes and pasta can get stuck between teeth, where they degrade into sugars that attract bacteria. Regular brushing and flossing can help keep this starch buildup at bay.
Once you understand the threats to your dental health from sleep-related issues, alcohol overindulgence, and even foods that normally enhance your overall health, you can address them in your daily life and behaviors. You'll then find yourself enjoying happier dental checkups and stronger, more beautiful teeth.