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Acidity and Tooth Damage


When I give talks, I usually take a couple of eggs with me to demonstrate the corrosiveness of acid, because an eggshell in many ways resembles the enamel shell of teeth. The night before the talk, I immerse these uncooked eggs in an acidic liquid, which, I explain, is like soaking your teeth in something acidic. Vinegar works well for the eggshell experiment, but you could use any acidic liquid to dissolve the eggshells. My audience is usually shocked when I show them how the acidity has removed the hard outer coating of the egg and made the shell soft and easily rubbed away. Next I drop the egg into a cup of coffee or a tumbler of grape juice or wine. The porous acid-softened shell quickly becomes dark and stained. I explain how acids have a similar effect on teeth and how acid-softened enamel stains quickly and easily.
To tell whether or not a liquid is acidic you can measure its pH. A pH measurement can be taken with litmus paper or, if a more accurate measurement is needed, with a special pH meter. A pH meter has a small tube-shaped probe that looks like a thermometer attached to a computerized gauge. The gauge is calibrated to give very accurate pH measurements as the probe is dipped into test liquids. The score, or pH reading, instantly shows on the screen as a digital number. A pH meter is probably more sensitive than you need for testing the acidity of everyday foods and drinks, and it’s a relatively expensive piece of equipment, but it is fun to use at lectures.
Litmus paper, on the other hand, is inexpensive and can be purchased on the Internet or at health food stores.2 Different papers have different ranges of sensitivity; you need a range between pH 5 and 8 for the mouth. A pH testing kit includes paper and a color chart so you can interpret your results. When litmus paper is moistened or dipped into a liquid, the paper changes to a color that reflects the chemistry of the liquid. You match the paper against a chart to find a similar color and find its corresponding pH number, which is the acidity measurement for the test liquid.
A pH scale is an imaginary scale numbered between 1 and 14. An alkaline liquid, such as milk, would have a high number, somewhere between 7 and 14. The more alkaline the liquid, the higher the number and the pH. An acidic liquid, such as vinegar, would have a low number, always lower than the neutral pH 7. The more acidic the liquid, the lower the number and the pH. A reading that comes out just below pH 5.5, for example, would indicate that the liquid could severely damage tooth enamel because minerals dissolve out of tooth enamel crystals in a mouth with that pH level, thereby weakening teeth in much the same way that the eggshells were dissolved.
Once my audience understands that low pH numbers are acidic and that acidity can cause damage to teeth, I walk around and collect samples from the various drinks people have selected to sip during the event. I line up the samples on my demonstration table and dip my pH measuring gauge into each one. The selection includes a variety of beverages and bottled waters routinely consumed in the United States. I measure soda, sports drinks, iced teas, diet drinks, and more. Apple juice usually horrifies the audience with its pH of around 2.2. Suddenly people see the importance of knowing the acidity of the liquids they are putting into their mouths.

TEST YOUR SALIVA

Saliva pH measurements can be used to visually monitor how quickly changes occur in the mouth and how saliva acidity can change in different life situations. Ideally, you should take a mouth acidity (pH) reading in the morning, right after you wake up. This will give you a recording that is independent of changes caused by eating or drinking.
Begin the test by spitting a small amount of saliva into a spoon and dipping a strip of litmus paper (or a litmus stick) into the liquid. If you test your resting or morning saliva and find it is neutral or alkaline, you will generally have good salivary protection for your teeth. If you find your saliva is acidic, you may be at higher risk for cavities and tooth decay.3 A truly healthy mouth ideally has a resting acidity measurement of close to pH 7. Any time your mouth’s acidity level falls below the number 6, you should be worried about your teeth.
Test your saliva again during the day after drinking something acidic (coffee; grape, apple, or cranberry juice; or lemonade). Compare the new pH reading to the baseline early-morning litmus test of your resting saliva pH to see how the drink changed your saliva to become more acidic. Now test again at ten-minute intervals and see how long it takes for your mouth to return to your baseline state.
In a healthy mouth with plenty of natural saliva, a neutral pH usually returns within half an hour. The length of time varies for different people, but your test will give you a picture of how efficiently your saliva copes with an acidic attack. People with quicker recovery times, whose saliva rapidly returns their mouth to normal, will obviously have more protection for their teeth and less time for any tooth damage.4
Enamel crystals dissolve out of teeth faster and faster as mouth acidity increases. Worse, the damage increases by a factor of ten with each single-unit drop in acidity. This means that having a really acidic mouth will seriously damage your teeth. Some of the most acidic liquids in the mouth are stomach acids, which is especially important to know if you have acid reflux disease or bulimia. It is also important to be aware that many carbonated sodas and sports drinks (diet just as much as regular) are very acidic (as low as pH 2.2) and therefore damaging to teeth, regardless of their sugar content. People who drink a lot of soda or acidic sports and juice beverages should realize that their teeth are being soaked during each gulp in something extremely damaging and corrosive.
Holistic medical practitioners believe it is important to control general body acidity for overall health. Basically, the belief is that germs are less able to grow in and take over an alkaline body, and the more acidic your body, the more disease prone you become. In death, our bodies are completely acidic, which allows our bodies to be overtaken by bacteria and decompose.
Louis Pasteur, famous for his role in preventing disease with vaccination and pasteurization, is said to have uttered on his deathbed, “It is not the germ; it is the terrain.” What Pasteur and others were saying, as early as the 1900s, was that they recognized the importance of the body’s vulnerability and also the factors that could build resistance to disease. The same is true for the mouth. If you reduce the acidity in your mouth and try to control the growth of acid-loving bacteria, your mouth will be a more hostile place for harmful disease bacteria and instead will be a place where your teeth will remain healthy and strong.

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