The dangers of binge-drinking have been well-documented. It can have a detrimental and potentially hazardous effect on a person’s behaviour and coordination skills, making it more likely that they will succumb to an accident or injury; and it isn’t great for a person’s overall health either. Drinking to excess on a regular basis can cause heart and respiratory problems, not mention serious mental health issues over the long term.
But what many people don’t consider is how alcohol consumption can affect oral and, more specifically, dental health too. As well as what you drink, how you drink can play an important role too when it comes to alcohol, and your teeth and gums.
This week, we got in touch with Karen Coates, Oral Health Advisor at the British Dental Health Foundation, to get her take on how alcohol can be harmful to oral health, and what practices can be adopted to limit its damaging effects.
First of all, what is excessive consumption?
The organisation Drinkaware defines binge drinking as the consumption of an amount of alcohol which is twice that (or more) of the lower risk threshold in one session. For women, this is 2-3 units, and for men 3-4 units. So, if a woman drinks more than 6 units, or a man drinks more than 8, this is technically considered ‘binge drinking’.
This isn’t as much as you might think. A large glass of wine is equivalent to about 3 units; whereas a pint of beer is usually between 2 and 3.
Doctors recommend that after a heavy session, it is advisable to have around 48 hours rest from alcohol, so that the body has sufficient time to recover.
Binge-drinking and dental health
So why is binge drinking so bad for oral health? What risks does it pose?
‘The negative effects of binge drinking on dental health are numerous,’ Karen explains, ‘as drinking any amount of alcohol can have a potentially bad effect on your teeth. The main threat comes from the sugar content in alcohol (including beer) which, when broken down in your mouth, creates an acidic breeding ground for bacteria and plaque which causes tooth decay.’
Although they arguably aren’t as popular as they used to be, Karen explains that alcopops are a particularly harmful offender due to their high sugar content, which can of course lead to acid erosion. Perhaps a more prominent equivalent today is the mixer, which is used alongside a spirit or in a cocktail, and is also typically high in sugar.
Going further, the dehydrating effect of alcohol when consumed to excess can also come into play. ‘Dry mouth is potentially harmful,’ Karen explains, ‘as there is less saliva present in the mouth. What many people don’t realise is that saliva actually does a very important job; it contains anti-bacterial agents which help to fight acid, but when people are dehydrated these agents disappear causing higher levels of decay and erosion.’
Vomiting may also pose a problem to teeth, Karen says, as the acids contained in it can be ‘highly corrosive’.
And finally, there are the behavioural inhibitions which drinking can induce, which could also affect our dental hygiene practices. Karen points towards a study which recently appeared in the Journal of Periodontal Research, which found that ‘people who drink heavily also often forget to brush their teeth afterwards, which obviously is not good for dental health.’
Is it better to spread your consumption out over a longer period?
This is where the relationship between alcohol and dental health gets complicated. We asked Karen which has the worse ramifications on oral health: drinking a lot in one session; or drinking smaller amounts over a prolonged duration.
Here’s what she had to say:
‘In what may be surprising information and while not recommended at all, binge drinking may actually be less harmful to dental health than drinking smaller levels of alcohol over a prolonged period.’
Despite being slightly taken aback myself at this notion, after listening to Karen’s explanation, it makes perfect sense:
‘Simply put, having smaller levels of drinks throughout a longer period of time is exposing sugar levels to the teeth more often. Each time you have a sugary or acidic drink or food the acidity levels in the mouth changes and this has to return to a neutral level to stop any damage.’
‘It takes approximately one hour for the saliva to neutralise these acids, so each time you take a sip of a drink, this hour starts again; therefore spreading the drink out over a long period of time could lead the teeth to be under constant attack.’
So while binge drinking isn’t great for the acid levels in the mouth, embarking on a less intense but longer duration of consumption could actually be worse.
Picking a more sensible poison
We’ve already touched on the dangers of alcopops and mixers in particular, but are there more sensible alcohol choices one can make in order to limit damage to the teeth?
‘All alcoholic drinks are bad for oral health due to their sugar content,’ Karen illustrates, ‘but mixers such as energy drinks or cola used with spirits are the most dangerous to your teeth. If possible, opt for a low calorie alternative as a mixer.’
And in addition, it is better to choose a still option wherever feasible, as Karen explains:
‘Fizzy drinks such as alcopops and sparkling white wine are also more likely to cause damage due to the corrosive nature of the bubbles on your teeth.’
Pacing yourself: can it help?
You’ve no doubt heard that an effective remedy for those who want to pace themselves and enjoy the evening without succumbing to the effects of alcohol too early, is to have a glass of water in between drinks. But can this be beneficial to oral health when drinking as well?
To some extent, as Karen explains, it can:
‘What you should try to achieve is to counteract the levels of acids within your mouth after you have a drink. Returning your mouth back to its natural PH as quickly as possible is the best way to avoid any major dental health problems. You can help to achieve this by having a glass of water or milk between drinks or chewing sugar free gum to stimulate saliva flow.’
But while it may help to break up your drinking pattern with a balance-restoring non-alcoholic option, you should be aware that acid erosion starts again the second you have your next alcoholic drink, as Karen posits: ‘as soon as another drink which contains sugar and acid is consumed, the process of an acid attack is started again!’
Some expert advice
For many, alcohol is more than a nicety. Its prominence in our culture has made it something of a social necessity when we’re at weddings, family gatherings, parties, or just catching up with friends at the weekend. As a result, giving up alcohol completely isn’t a solve-all option which fits everybody.
So what can be done to limit the harmful effects of alcohol on the teeth? Are there measures you can take before or after going out to a party or social event which can help?
Thankfully, there are. Here are Karen’s handy and insightful tips:
- Firstly, brush before you go.
‘Try and make brushing your teeth part of your getting ready routine before you go out. Fluoride coats the enamel surface of the teeth acting as a barrier before an acid attack, not to mention you have the added benefit of smelling fresher.’
- Choose a lower-sugar option.
‘Choose drinks which are not too high in sugar and acid levels, and wherever possible, opt for lower calorie or sugar free versions of mixers with spirits.’
- Swish between drinks.
‘While you’re drinking try to swish a mouthful of water around every so often to increase the saliva flow and rinse away sugars and acids in your mouth.’
- Use a straw.
‘This will help to minimise the length of time that the drink is in contact with the teeth and could offer more protection against decay or acid erosion.’
- Take sugar-free gum with you.
‘Ideal for chewing on your way home, as it will help to stimulate saliva flow and clear the mouth of harmful sugars and acid.’
- Don’t brush your teeth straight away when you get home.
‘You need to wait for one hour after the last drink to allow the enamel to re-mineralise and prevent brushing away any loosened particles.’
- After an hour has passed, brush and floss your teeth before going to bed.
‘If you often forget to do this, leave your toothbrush on your pillow before you go out to remind you to spend a couple of minutes brushing.’
You can find out more about the work the British Dental Health Foundation do and make a donation by visiting their website.