Aside from overuse injuries and skin cancer, runners score well on most measures of good health. But another red flag has been raised by new research: Runners may suffer higher risks of tooth erosion and cavities.
In the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, a team of German dental researchers report significantly higher tooth erosion in triathletes than in non-athletes. In addition, the researchers found that athletes who engaged in more weekly training had more cavities than those who trained less.
“The triathletes’ high carbohydrate consumption, including sports drinks, gels, and bars during training, can lower the mouth’s pH below the critical mark of 5.5,” Cornelia Frese told Runner’s World. “That can lead to dental erosion and caries. Also, the athletes breathe through the mouth during hard exercise. The mouth gets dry, and produces less saliva, which normally protects the teeth.”
Frese, a marathoner, is a researcher in the Department of Conservative Dentistry at the University Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany. She and her husband, triathlete Falko Friese, were part of a team that investigated the dental health of 35 triathletes who trained almost 10 hours a week with a mix of cycling, running, and swimming. The athletes were examined for cavities and tooth erosion. They also took a saliva test both at rest and while exercising. All results were compared to the control group.
Both groups had an average age of 36, but the athletes were significantly lighter, with lower BMIs. This leanness is known to correlate with many positive health outcomes.
From a questionnaire, the researchers learned that 46 per cent of the athletes consumed sports drinks while training, and 51 per cent water. Seventy-four per cent used gels or bars.
Results from the various dental tests revealed no statistically significant difference in cavities between the two groups, although the athletes who trained the most had the most cavities. Type of sports beverage consumed was also not linked to cavities. However, there was a highly significant difference in tooth erosion, with the athletes having more.
At rest, members of the two groups had similar saliva profiles. However, when they began exercising, the athletes produced less saliva and it was acidic (i.e., pH lower than 7). Also, the degree of acidity increased with the length of time exercising. The exercise test given to the athletes lasted just 36 minutes on average. Saliva is considered important to good tooth health.
“Based on these findings, it can be suggested that endurance training has detrimental effects on oral health,” the researchers write. “Additionally, there is a need for exercise-adjusted oral hygiene regimes and nutritional modifications in the field of sports dentistry.”
Cornelia Friese told Runner’s World that her team is looking into possible modifications. “We are conducting a randomized, controlled clinical trial with 55 endurance athletes to test special toothpastes and mouth rinses,” she said. “If we could find a superior product that athletes can apply before training, that would be the ideal prevention.”
Until then, it would seem prudent to brush your teeth following a run, particularly if you have consumed various carbs during the run or after it.