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How does sugar affect your teeth?

We all know that eating too many sweets will result in holes in our teeth. It’s drilled (excuse the pun) into us from when we’re children. But why does sugar cause tooth decay?
It all starts with germs. Our mouths are full of bacteria, more than 500 different species! This bacteria feeds off sugars or carbohydrates, which then generates acid. When our mouths are acidic, the structure of the enamel which covers our teeth starts to dissolve and the minerals leave the tooth structure, softening it.

This is why having too many fizzy drinks, or other acidic foods and drinks mixed with sugar, will affect our teeth even more. This process is called ‘demineralisation’. If this happens often enough, the structure of the enamel becomes weaker. If enough of the minerals leave the enamel, decay will start to form. First the hard tooth structure becomes softer, then discolours, and eventually a cavity will form. Once this happens, the bacteria can get inside the tooth and the process gets worse. This is why we sometimes need fillings, which involves removing the affected tooth tissue and replacing it with a filling material.

How can you protect your teeth?

Saliva has a naturally protective effect by washing away the acid, neutralising the environment in the mouth. However, this process takes time – up to an hour after each acid attack. So the frequency of sugar consumption is key: if you eat sugary foods often throughout the day, for example a nibble of cereal, a sweet or two, a few swigs of fruit juice between meals, it will mean your mouth will never fully recover from the acid hit and the teeth with be constantly softened and potentially decay will be forming. It is a good idea to try and avoid sugary foods and drinks between meals, to reduce the frequency of the acid attack.

Another way to help speed up the recovery after eating, is by using a mouthwash, preferably with fluoride in it. Fluoride is also in toothpaste, which has been around since the 1980s and has resulted in a significant drop in decay rates ever since. Fluoride has an amazing protective effect on the teeth by actually changing the structure of the minerals in the tooth, to make it stronger and more resistant to demineralisation. Brushing twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste containing 1450ppm fluoride will really improve your chances of avoiding tooth decay. It will also remove plaque which consists of a lot of extra bacteria.

In summary, reducing the amount and frequency of sugar consumption, while brushing 2-3 times a day with a fluoride toothpaste, will help reduce the incidence of tooth decay.

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