by Nancy Brillaut
From the time we are young children, we are taught to brush our teeth, planting the seeds for good dental hygiene. Good brushing and flossing and restricted sugar consumption can reduce the occurrence of cavities, yet they still remain common. A National Institute of Health survey shows nearly 20% of children, ages 2-4, have already experienced cavities; more than 67% of adults aged 35-44 have lost at least one permanent tooth due to dental cavities, and 25% of people 65-74 have lost all of their natural teeth! Here’s what is going on.
Tooth decay is a bacterial disease. The bacterium, streptococcus mutans (S. mutans), is one of many millions of bacteria living in our mouths. Most of these bacteria are harmless, some even beneficial. However, S. mutans is the culprit causing tooth decay by feeding on sugars in our mouth. Simple carbohydrates are fermented by S. mutans into lactic acid. Lactic acid increases acidity in the mouth, initiating the process of dissolving tooth enamel, also referred to as de-mineralization. This is a simplistic explanation of tooth decay; however, this article is not meant to be a chemistry lesson, but rather an introduction to a wonderful sugar substitute called Xylitol.
What is Xylitol you ask? Xylitol is a natural sugar, sometimes called wood sugar or birch sugar. It can be extracted from birch wood, raspberries, plums and other fruits, corn, seed hulls, and nutshells. Xylitol is a 5-carbon structure and, unlike the 6-carbon structure of sucrose, is not a substance on which bacteria can grow. In fact, Xylitol may inhibit S. mutans and other bacterial enzymes and actually interfere with the metabolism of other sugars found in the mouth.
So, what does all this chemistry babble mean to us in terms of our dental hygiene and general health? Xylitol is actually a “tooth-friendly” sugar substitute. Xylitol not only discourages tooth decay, but may actively help repair small cavities. Recent research suggests Xylitol attracts and then starves harmful bacteria, allowing remineralization of damaged teeth. Xylitol is not a sugar, so there is no sugar rush, or crash. Twenty-five years of scientific research, mostly on children, has shown that regular use of Xylitol over a period of time reduces the incidence of cavities. There are many studies, the majority conducted in “developing” countries like Belize, Hungary, and Costa Rica, where routine dental care is limited at best, and the results are consistent; the incidence of dental cavities is reduced by large percentages, in some cases as much as 75%. Most research tested gums and candies (mints) containing Xylitol, since the delivery systems that produced the best anti-cavity results were those permitting direct contact with the teeth for the longest time.
Xylitol is also available in toothpastes, mouthwashes, chewable supplements and breath sprays. How much should we use? Studies show using 4-12 grams per day is most effective. If a piece of gum contains 1 gram, chew a minimum of four pieces per day. Given the safety of this product, this is one case where “more is better.” Remarkably, it appears that regular use of Xylitol for a period of time (2 years in the study of children in Belize), provides lasting protection against cavities. These children were examined five years later and the Xylitol group had an average of only 1.5 new cavities, compared to 4 new cavities in the control group.
Another study indicated that regular intake of Xylitol by mom while baby is in the womb, provides lifelong protection for baby. New clinical evidence appears regularly about this safe sugar substitute. Other benefits include prevention of childhood ear infections, lower risk of Type II Diabetes due to the slower absorption of this sugar into the blood, and reduction of subsequent insulin response. A Finnish study has shown improved bone density.
Apparently Xylitol is here to stay. Children who begin chewing Xylitol gum about a year before their permanent teeth erupt may avoid a lifetime of painful visits to the dentist. In fact, one dentist was reported as saying that regular use of Xylitol in the American diet, could put dentists out of business. Time to change our diets people!
Nancy Brillault is a clinically certified herbalist, certified aromatherapist and practicing wellness consultant in Santa Fe, New Mexico.