Oral Health and Athletes

School Of Nutrition Posted Jan 03, 2013 Future Fit Training


Rebecca Hunt looks at an innovative new study that investigates the oral health of athletes and its impact on training and performance.

Oral Health and Athletes

The ultimate goal for all sportsmen and women is to be the best they can be. To help achieve this there is strict dedication to training regimes, meeting nutritional goals and staying hydrated. This is aided by advice from personal trainers, sports physicians and dieticians, but what about the dentist?

The importance of oral health to sportspeople has recently been brought to the forefront by Professor Ian Needleman from the UCL Eastman Dental Institute in London.

Dr. Needleman is leading an innovative study to investigate the oral health of elite athletes and impact of oral health on training and performance by studying athletes who took part in the London 2012 Olympic games.

Dr. Needleman reported “There are many potential threats to oral health in athletes including exercise-induced immunosuppression, difficulty in taking time away from training for oral care, and drinks high in sugars. Despite this, oral health does not usually appear on the radar for many athletes and little is known about such impacts on their performance.”

For many sportspeople oral health is at the bottom of their priorities. While poor oral health won't necessarily affect day-to-day performance there are likely to be negative consequences somewhere down the line meaning time out from training or events for dental care.

Dental decay and erosion

Sports drinks and gels and use of high glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates can aid performance and recovery and hence play an important role nutritionally. However, they have an impact on oral heath leading to dental decay and erosion.

Tooth decay happens when bacterial acids soften the enamel and dentine of a tooth after you have eaten or drunk anything containing sugars. Over time, the acid makes a cavity in the tooth.

Dental erosion is the loss of tooth enamel caused by dietary acids rather than bacterial acids. Enamel is the hard, protective coating of the tooth, which protects the sensitive dentine underneath. Dental erosion is irreversible, increases sensitivity, increases risk of decay and can ruin the appearance of teeth.

It’s important to remember it’s not just the amount of sugar or acid that’s important. It’s the frequency. Every time they are consumed the teeth are subjected to an acid attack. If frequency is high the teeth don’t get a chance to recover and decay and erosion is more likely to happen.

To reduce the risk of decay or erosion try to follow the following preventative advice.

  • Visit a dentist regularly to get preventative advice
  • Use fluoride toothpaste twice each day. Fluoride content should be higher than 3500ppm.
  • Brush 2 times a day, especially last thing at night
  • Minimize the frequency of sugar/ acids throughout the day. Try to eat medium to low GI foods the rest of the day.
  • Chew sugar free gum after use of sports drinks/gels. This will help dilute the acid.
  • Reduce the acidic affects of sports drinks by keeping them cool. Drink them through a straw to reduce contact with the teeth. Do not swirl around the mouth
  • Eat a small piece of cheese or have milk after acidic foods/drinks. This helps to re-mineralise the tooth surface and dilute the acid
  • Do not brush teeth for at least 30 minites after eating acidic foods/drinks. Brushing immediately can enhance the erosive effect of the acid
  • Use water to stay hydrated between training sessions. Keeping well hydrated will maximise saliva flow, decreasing risk of decay and erosion


Oral injuries

Those involved with contact sports have increased risk of broken teeth, jaw fractures, laceration of the soft tissues and concussion.

Reduce this risk with a mouth guard. They should be worn in any sport where contact with another player or a hard surface or object is possible, for example basketball, rugby and boxing.



Exercise-induced immunosuppression

Heavy exercise and a deficiency in vital nutrients can result in a suppressed immune system. This can in turn increase risk  of infection and illness including oral infections, which can be painful and affect eating.

To prevent immunosuppression a healthy balanced diet rich in antioxidant vitamins and minerals is essential.

Oral health may not initially come to mind when thinking about a healthy body. However,taking a holistic approach is important for both health and performance. In the process of meeting training, nutrition and hydration goals also try also to consider the affects of oral health. Prevention will avoid dental problems, pain and any valuable time off for treatment.

References and further information

UCL Eastman Dental Institute (www.ucl.ac.uk)

British Dental Health Foundation (www.dentalhealth.org)

British Dental Association  (www.bda.org)

Australian Institute of Sport (www.ausport.gov.au/ais)

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