Have you ever thought of your mouth as if it were a living, breathing version of a major city like Chicago? Think about it … you’ve got beautiful ascending (and descending!) skyscrapers in there … some of us have bridges … or even fillings that resemble patched roadways. And, of course, what’s a city like Chicago without the elevated train? Braces, anyone? Ah, and we can’t forget its dashing purple taxi-cabs, right? Purple taxi cabs? What would that represent?
The Purple Lurker
Well, you might not want to know it, but your mouth is teeming with hundreds of species of bacterium, some of which are helpful to maintaining a healthy mouth, but others are not. Those little purple taxi cabs in this fantasy world are the real world Streptococcus mutans, or S. mutans, which under a microscope are purple – and in your mouth, they’re the cause of cavities and decay.
Sweeping Away S. mutans
In order to keep that mouth of yours clean and in good working order, you’ve got to take care of it. And, a lot of that effort comes down to maintaining a proper diet. You see, your mouth is really the key to the ignition of your body’s digestive system. Its job is to take that giant sandwich you just ate and turn it into something the rest of your body can actually use. So, before you even begin eating, the scent of food triggers your brain to produce the saliva and enzymes that will get this process underway. Once you start eating, these products break down the larger cells of food into smaller cells that move their way down the esophagus to the next step in the digestive journey. Okay, now your mouth can take a rest, right? Well, not really – this is where the real fun starts. And if you consumed foods high in starch and sugar during that last meal, our friend S. mutans is going to have a field day.
For about thirty minutes after you’ve finished dining and your saliva production has slowed, the pH of your mouth sits at a level that allows S. mutans to begin its villainy. The bacteria work quickly to enjoy that meal as much as you did, and start consuming the two things it loves most: the remaining starch and sugar molecules left behind from your food. As S. mutans dines away on your leftovers, the by-products of its own digestion process are a thin film of plaque that coats your teeth and provides ahome for them, and lactic acid which erodes your tooth’s enamel, and can result in cavities. And it’s the acid that is the real culprit here.
We all know we don’t want any plaque and cavities in our mouths. Our responsibility, then, is to minimize the sugars S. mutans uses to proliferate and sustain itself, and this is how we do it:
- Limit snacking, nothing helps cavity formation more than feeding S. mutans every few minutes by eating candy all day long. Give your mouth a rest.
- Help repair and remineralize tooth enamel by eating foods that do just that. Meats and cheeses as well as nuts and milk are thought to help in this regard.
- Firm/crunchy fruits and vegetables are also good choices because of their high water content which dilutes the effects of the sugars they contain, and stimulate the flow of saliva.
- Acidic foods, such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, and lemons, should be eaten as part of a larger meal to minimize the acid from them.
- Chewing gum that contains xylitol after each meal helps stimulate saliva flow – which is the best protector of teeth we possess.
And, of course, bring out the street sweepers. Brush at least twice and day, preferably after each meal or snack. You are the mayor of your mouth! Keep it clean by eating a diet that supports good oral health. Essentially, what is good for your waistline is good for your teeth as well.
By the way, did you know that Dr. Nawiesniak went to dental school in downtown Chicago at Northwestern University? You should ask him sometime about his adventures on the “L” or the elevated train.