Most people are told from a young age that proactive dental health is important for preventing cavities, gum disease, and maintaining strong teeth. But going beyond brushing and flossing can make all the difference. Dental health and nutrition go hand-in-hand, and there are many factors that work synergistically to impact overall health when it comes to dental status and certain aspects of nutrition.
The foundation of dental care is based on two key components: 1) brushing and flossing and 2) healthy teeth and gums. The proper daily brushing and flossing of teeth reduces plaque buildup and the risk for gum disease and cavities. A cavity is defined as a hole in the enamel of a tooth. Cavities, also known as dental caries, result from the acidic byproducts of plaque build-up. Acid breaks down teeth and slowly causes holes to form.
When an individual lacks certain healthy habits, dental health conditions may result, which are costly to fix and may lead to permanent damage. Incorporating certain vitamins and minerals into the diet supports dental health.
Gum Disease & Tooth Decay
Periodontal (gum) disease is a common dental condition that results from the lack of proper oral care. There are two types of periodontal diseases: gingivitis and periodontitis. Gingivitis occurs when gum tissue becomes inflamed, and if left untreated, it can result in the more serious of the two periodontal conditions: periodontitis. Gingivitis is characterized by bacteria colonizing in pockets of the gums, causing destruction of tissues that connect teeth to bone in the mouth. These colonizing bacteria enter the bloodstream more easily, which may lead to additional health issues and increased risk of heart disease. Signs of gingivitis may include swollen, discolored, bleeding, tender, and/or receding gums, as well as changes in tooth sensation while eating, loose teeth, teeth loss, and bad breath.
Tooth decay is caused by acid-producing bacteria that are activated by carbohydrates. Oral microbiota break down carbohydrates through fermentation and produce acidic byproducts that demineralize dental hard tissue. After carbohydrate intake, there is a rapid increase in acidity (pH 5.5 or below) surrounding the biofilm on teeth. The specific type of carbohydrate eaten determines the extent to which the tooth decays. Sugars have the highest potential to be metabolized by the fermenting bacteria in the mouth. This potential is greater than that for starches to be metabolized. Sucrose has the highest potential for metabolism by bacteria, more so than other sugars. Lactose has a lesser potential than sucrose, fructose, and glucose; its fermentation produces a smaller increase in acidity. The amount and frequency of sugar intake is also a factor in bacterial metabolism and the ultimate severity of tooth damage.
Nutrition for Healthy Dental Hygiene
Both dental hygiene and nutrition help to reduce the prevalence of oral health conditions like gum disease and tooth decay.
The American Dental Association emphasizes the association between frequent consumption of acidic foods and beverages and an increased risk of tooth damage. Acidic foods may include things like bacon, beef, dairy products, corn syrup, olives, and even grains like spaghetti and white flour. Acidic beverages include energy drinks, coffee, sodas, and lemonade. By minimizing the consumption of these foods and drinks and incorporating more alkalizing foods like broccoli, cucumber, kale, apples, dates, almonds, and cinnamon, dental acidity can be balanced, and damage from acidic byproducts can be mitigated.1
Water, specifically when fluoridated, is known to be beneficial for dental health due to enamel protection and repair from acidic damage. Tap water is often fluoridated, so drinking water from the sink can help prevent dental issues.
4 Foods for Dental Health
Oral mucosal cells are recycled and created anew every couple of days; nutrient deficiencies become evident in the mouth before any other location in the body. A handful of specific foods may be particularly beneficial for dental health.1
- Fiber-rich foods are important for balancing sugars and minimizing damage to teeth caused by sugar. Fruits and vegetables are often high in fiber as well as water. Chewing and breaking down the fiber in fruits and vegetables also stimulates saliva production, protecting teeth from acidity and stray food particles.
- Nuts are also advantageous to dental health because they are lower in sugar and higher in protein and other minerals, which also benefit overall health. Nuts require a good amount of chewing, which reaps additional saliva production benefits.
- Dairy products – although they can be acidic – contain calcium, a mineral that helps to strengthen teeth and reduce tooth decay. Dairy-free “milk” beverages, such as those made from soy, almonds, oats, and other nuts, are often fortified with calcium, which serve as another source of calcium for bone strength that is less acidic.
- Lean proteins, such as eggs, fish, and poultry can help repair tissues and build bone strength, such as strong teeth, jaw function, and a reduction in the risk of dental damage or a weakened jaw. Lean proteins also contain phosphorus, which is a key nutrient in supporting strong teeth.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids & Micronutrients for Dental Health
In addition to the nutritional benefits of whole foods that contain fiber and important minerals like calcium and phosphorus, a handful of additional nutrients are important to mention in the context of dental health.
- Vitamin C supports gum health and collagen maturation, which aids in maintaining the integrity of the periodontal ligament that anchors teeth to the alveolar bone. Additionally, vitamin C’s antioxidant activity may negate the suboptimal effects of bacteria found on the surface of teeth.2
- Vitamin D influences the regulation of calcium and phosphate metabolism in the mouth. Vitamin D is needed for oral mucosal and connective tissues and has the potential to enhance enamel remineralization.3 Consuming sufficient vitamin D had shown to enhance bone density, decrease osteopenia, reduce the risk for periodontal disease, and prevent tooth loss.4
- Zinc, iron, vitamin A, and omega-3 fatty acids are important for supporting mucosal and connect tissues. Immune systems support can be an extra benefit from these vitamins and minerals. Additionally, omega-3 fatty acids work to modulate the inflammatory response, which is advantageous to overall health.3
- B vitamins are crucial for optimal oral health as they are needed for epithelial cell turnover. This is the process of replacing dying cells with new cells. This turnover is important to ensure the old and outworn cells are replaced with more effective cells. With proper nutrition, one can ensure that the old cells are replaced with new, healthy, and ideally functioning cells.
Probiotics & Phytonutrients for Dental Health
Probiotics have been shown to reduce the risk of gingivitis, plaque, and gum disease, mostly known to help gut bacteria flourish.5 Specifically, Lactobacillus and Streptococcus strains have shown to be the most useful in reducing plaque buildup on teeth.
Cranberries contain anthocyanins, a class of phytonutrient compound found in plants with antioxidant effects. Similar to the antioxidant effect of vitamin C, the antioxidant properties in cranberries work to prevent attachment and colonization of pathogens on teeth.6 Other foods with anthocyanins include blueberries, red cabbage, black rice, and raspberries.
Green tea contains polyphenols, another type of phytonutrient, that have proven to regulate bacteria and their toxic byproducts, which leads to cavities and gingivitis.7 In addition, tea often contains natural fluoride to strengthen enamel and teeth overall.
A wide range of dietary choices are available for individuals looking to enhance their oral healthcare. While a few micronutrients are particularly helpful for general bone function and teeth health specifically, these micronutrients and related foods are also beneficial for regular, whole-body support.