Elite athletes and poor dental health

This week, a number of general news outlets publicised the findings of a recent study, originally published in the British Dental Journal.

This study highlighted the unusually poor dental health of elite athletes.

What stood out for researchers is the fact elite athletes are significantly more likely to brush their teeth twice per day, floss and seek professional dental care than members of the general public…

…yet nearly half of the athletes studied showed signs of early gum inflammation and untreated tooth decay.

So, what is going on here?

The reasons cited for this apparent paradox were:

  • Elie athletes consume a lot of energy bars – essentially these are concentrated forms of sugar that give a ‘quick’ boost to energy,

  • Athletes use sports drinks to hydrate themselves – these drinks are a cocktail of acid and sugar,

  • Athletes also use sports gels – these are made of pure glucose and provide an explosion of energy in a form that is easy to digest during intense events,

  • Poor saliva flow always occurs with intense physical training. Train hard and you will have a dry mouth, and it will remain dry for 3 hours after that one training session. Saliva is the guardian angel of teeth.

  • A dry mouth makes teeth extraordinarily vulnerable to direct damage by acid, and tooth decay from sugar. In essence, the worst times to drink a sports drink or eat an energy bar is during training and for 3 hours afterwards. 

Perhaps theses facts are considered unimportant when the only end-game that matters is wringing the best performance out of the athlete's body. 

But there is more to this issue than the reckless use of harming foods and drinks in the pursuit of a 'win'.

Most of us consider athletes to be the healthiest cohort in our population. The fact they have evidence of dental disease, yet seem to be doing all of the ‘right’ dental things should make us all stop and consider some key points about dental health and indeed general health.

They are:

  • We cannot brush and floss our way to dental health, alone. Dental health requires an encompassing approach that includes the way we eat, the way we sleep and the way we drive our body every day. Rely on one approach in isolation (eg: tooth brushing) and trouble can and will occur.

  • Health is a whole body and being phenomenon. Can we call it health if one part of the body has been sacrificed to achieve some sort of outcome for another?

  • The mouth and body are one. If the health of the mouth is out of balance it reveals that everything is out of balance and needs to be looked at with deep consideration - if true health is our goal.

Although the dental problems experienced by athletes prompted this blog, the considerations offered here apply to each and every one of us. They apply to the way we damage our health when we pursue one thing in disregard to all else - whether it is training hard, studying hard, partying hard, pulling over-long hours at the office.

Anytime we make everything about one thing, to the detriment of the whole, we simply do not have health.

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