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Do Sports Drinks Really Cause Tooth Decay?

By Jennifer Woodbury Duval
From Reno Moms Blog

My boys drink a lot of water. It’s actually their drink of choice, unless they are playing sports, that is! As avid soccer and baseball players, when they are playing, all they want to drink is Gatorade or something similar.

I’m sure you’re not surprised. Sports drinks have become more and more popular among athletes and children. Despite knowing that these liquids are highly acidic and full of sugar, lots of parents (including me!) let their kids drink them. Acid and sugar seem like a bad combo and leave our little athletes prone to erosion and cavities. So what’s a mom to do?

Dr. Garol from The Smile Shop tells us more below!

What causes the erosion and cavities? Is it just the sugar alone?
Athletes are prone to dehydration and this causes low salivary flow in the mouth. Having low salivary flow, acid and sugars available to the bacteria in the mouth is the perfect storm for enamel erosion and tooth decay. Sports drinks being highly acidic in nature allow the bacteria in the mouth to cause demineralization (erosion) of teeth. Bacteria will feed off the sugar and produce more acid that allows for more erosion. Demineralization or erosion is the softening of the outer tooth structure. Over time, this will create cavities, sensitivity and tooth pain.

Are all sports drinks created equal or are some better/worse than others?
Sports drinks are marketed to help athletes perform better with rehydration, electrolytes, and also provide carbohydrates for energy. Typically, it’s a small amount of electrolytes. The main ingredients for carbohydrates in sports drinks are glucose, fructose, and sucrose – all sugars that are harmful to teeth. So if athletes are looking for rehydration, water would be the best source, and fruits and vegetables would be alternative carb sources.
Sports drinks have a pH between 2.4 and 4.5 whereas water is considered neutral at a pH of 7. To give you a reference on the low end (more acidic), battery acid is at a pH of 1. Sports drinks are no safer than sodas when it comes to enamel erosion and tooth decay. There have been multiple research studies about sports drinks, energy drinks and soda comparing all of them to enamel erosion and tooth decay. They all cause enamel erosion.

Understanding that water is best, what steps should my child/teen take to protect their teeth if they are going to consume sports drinks?

Steps to help protect teeth if children/teens are going to consume sports drinks are:

  • Drink through a straw (this allows for less contact with the teeth) and as fast as possible
  • Rinse out the mouth with water after
  • Use mouthwash if available
  • Dilute the sports drink with water
  • Refrain from brushing right after drinking (brushing around the acid can actually exacerbate enamel erosion)
  • Chew sugar-free gum that contains xylitol.  Xylitol should be the first ingredient listedon the gum (e.g. Trident or Mentos). Xylitol is a naturally occurring sugar that allows the pH in the mouth to return to normal more quickly (meaning less acidic). Chewing on sugar-free gum also allows the increase of salivary flow which in turn, allows the pH of the mouth to return to a more stable pH faster.

I would still recommend water over sports drinks.

What are some signs of declining dental health as a result of sports drinks?
You may notice the front teeth getting white spots that do not match the color of the other teeth. This process is known as demineralization or erosion. The white spots are a weakening of the enamel and then can lead to cavitation or a hole in your tooth, and can lead to dental decay. Decay is typically yellow, orange or brown in color. Also, increased sensitivity when drinking something cold can be a sign of declining oral health.

Will dental erosion affect athletic performance?
Dental erosion can lead to sensitivity, tooth pain, and decay. If an athlete does not take proper care of his/her teeth, this can potentially lead to poorer performance in their respective sport due to amount of decay and tooth pain. This is also the same for children in school — decay and tooth pain can lead to poor performance in school. This is why it is important to visit your dentist for exams and cleanings every six months.

Want to learn more? Any of the dentists at The Smile Shop can help; call to make an appointment today!