For many people, February is the month of love. Not only is it the American Heart Association’s Heart Month, but everyone’s favorite love fest (also known as Valentine’s Day) falls smack dab in the middle. It’s subsequent celebration gives us a break from the winter blues with boxes of dark chocolate (for heart health, of course) and gestures of adoration.
Throughout February, we often find ourselves casually munching on remnant conversation hearts and chocolate kisses, and too often these sweet indulgences take a toll on our teeth. Fact: candy contains sugar, and the wrong kind of sugars can be bad for your oral health.
It’s no coincidence then, that February also happens to be National Children’s Dental Health Month. Yes, children’s dental health. As it turns out, the oral health needs and best practices of children differ in many ways than those of adults.
To get the scoop on pediatric dentistry, as well as more on how kefir and probiotics play a role in dental health, we reach out to our friend Dr. Kevin Coppola, DDS out in San Antonio, Texas. Read on for his responses to our questions.
An Interview with a DDS
What is your personal philosophy/approach to oral health?
I see oral health as having three major components: oral hygiene, diet, and physiologic factors (which include the natural balance of good and bad bacteria in your mouth and salivary flow). While most people think that brushing (and flossing, if you are lucky) is all you need to do, it is somewhat more complicated. As a dentist, I find it necessary to promote good oral hygiene, but also to educate about diet and oral flora.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) defines dental caries (fancy word for cavities) as the number one transmissible infectious disease in children. This means that parents, siblings, and friends can pass on the ‘bad bacteria (including s. Mutans, the bacteria that causes cavities) through sharing utensils, sharing straws or kissing on the mouth.
What can you tell us about diet and oral health/hygiene? Are there certain foods that promote healthier mouths than other foods?
I cannot stress how important diet is for oral hygiene, especially in children. Many cavities can be prevented with a slight modification in their diet. Sticky foods, such as gummy snacks, fruit roll-ups or even things that one would consider healthy, like dried fruit and gummy vitamins, are a major scourge.
Avoiding acidic foods, simple carbohydrates and sugar is key in not only a healthy mouth but also healthy body (they are connected, after all). Vegetables and dairy products, like kefir, are a few foods that can promote a healthy mouth.
What kinds of foods should parents provide their children for optimal health?
Dairy products, which are high in calcium, are great for kids and their oral hygiene. White cheeses can help stimulate salivary flow, which is not only good for removing debris from the teeth, but also makes the mouth less acidic and can help remineralize teeth.
Milk, cheese, kefir and other dairy products can help increase calcium in your body, which helps maintain healthy bones and teeth. Fresh fruits and vegetables can also promote a healthy mouth. Avoid juices since those can be high in sugar and have taken out the fiber.
Products that have xylitol (a naturally occurring sugar-alcohol) can also help bring down the count of ‘bad bacteria’ in your mouth.
Is there any science behind probiotics or cultured foods promoting better oral health?
For many years, most of the research conducted on probiotics was strictly limited to benefits in your gut. The benefits for gut health are a good enough reason alone to consume probiotics, but more recently, research is indicating that probiotics can be very beneficial for your oral health as well.
Our bodies are a host for life; we contain more bacterial cells than human cells! It is import to understand this relationship, especially in oral health. Your mouth is a perfect environment for bacterial growth: dark, warm, wet, and has a continual supply of food.
There are various strains of bacteria in your mouth all competing for limited resources. Some of the bacteria is good (helps digest food and keep nutrients from bad bacteria) and some strains are bad (they can cause cavities and gum disease). Probiotics encourage the growth of good bacteria, which will help to keep your bad bacterial count low.
How do vitamin D and calcium affect oral health?
There is a cycle of demineralization and remineralization that goes on in your mouth. Every time you eat, the acidity of your mouth goes up, slightly weakening the teeth. When you produce saliva, calcium and fluoride ions in your saliva help to remineralize the teeth.
When the amount of demineralization and remineralization ‘break even,’ you see no progression of cavities, however if demineralization outweighs remineralization, a cavity develops. Adequate calcium consumption aids in the remineralization process of your teeth, helping to prevent cavities.
Calcium and vitamin D are known to affect bone health, but what you might not consider is that your teeth are ‘seated’ in bone. Bone loss in your jaw (aka periodontal disease) leads to tooth loss. Having a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D has been shown to prevent bone loss and subsequent tooth loss.
Reversing tooth enamel loss and bone loss in your jaws is impossible, it is only possible to prevent it; diets high in calcium and vitamin D have been shown to prevent both.
What types of foods should people, especially children, avoid for better oral health?
People, but especially children, should avoid highly acidic foods and drinks (soda, juice, and sports drinks). Simple carbohydrates and sugars are the fuel that run the bad bacteria in your mouth, try not to feed that bad bacteria.
How do children’s teeth differ from adult teeth? Should we treat them differently? If so, how?
Primary teeth (aka ‘baby teeth’) have a different anatomical structure than adult teeth. A main difference is baby teeth only have 1mm of enamel, the protective coating of your teeth and strongest substance in your body, while adult teeth have enamel that can be over twice the thickness. This is important for a few different reasons, mainly:
- It’s easier to get a cavity if you have half the amount of protective coating that an adult tooth has. This is why diet and hygiene for cavity prevention is especially critical for primary teeth and children.
- The amount of enamel actually dictates the type of treatment for a tooth. Often times parents ask me, “can’t you just do a filling instead of a silver cap?” on certain types of cavities. The unfortunate the answer is, “no.” The AAPD gives us guidelines that we follow and in these cases, because there isn’t enough enamel for white filling material to bond to, white fillings aren’t often advised.
In closing, tooth decay is the leading chronic childhood illness in America. More than 51 million school hours are missed for dental treatment of an illness that is preventable. Small steps are all that are needed to keep your children’s teeth in good shape. Avoiding sugary, gummy snacks and consuming a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, vitamin D and calcium is a good place to start.
Dr. Kevin Coppola is a full time dentist and part time DJ in San Antonio, TX. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin, dental school at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio, and has been accepted to receive advanced training in a pediatric dentistry residency in Laredo, TX.
You can reach him on Twitter at @kevcops – he would love to hear from you!