What is Xylitol?
Tooth decay happens when bacteria in your mouth consume the sugars we eat. When you eat food containing ordinary sugar (sucrose), it gives bacteria on your teeth energy, allowing them to multiply and start making acids that can eat away the enamel on the teeth. This “acid attack” causes tooth decay and cavities to begin to form. Xylitol is a natural sweetener derived from the fibrous parts of plants. It does not break down the way sugar does, and can help keep a neutral pH level in the mouth. Xylitol also fends off tooth decay by preventing bacteria from sticking to the teeth. With the dental benefits of Xylitol, the acid attack that would otherwise last for over half an hour is stopped. We look more into what Xylitol is and how it helps your mouth.
What is Xylitol and how is it made?
Xylitol is a substance that is categorized as a sugar alcohol (or polyalcohol). Sugar alcohols are like hybrids of a sugar molecule and alcohol molecule. Their structure gives them the ability to stimulate the sweet taste receptors on the tongue. Xylitol is found in small amounts in many fruits and vegetables and is therefore considered natural. Humans even produce small amounts of it via normal metabolism. It is a common ingredient in sugar free chewing gums, candies, mints, diabetes friendly foods and oral care products. It has a similar sweetness as regular sugar, but contains 40 percent fewer calories. Regular table sugar has four calories per gram, while Xylitol contains 2.4 calories per gram. Xylitol is basically just a white, crystalline powder. It is a refined sweetener, so it doesn’t contain any vitamins, minerals or protein. Xylitol can be processed from trees like birch, but it can also be made with an industrial process that transforms a plant fiber called xylan into Xylitol.
How does Xylitol help fight bacteria?
Many dentists recommend using xylitol-sweetened chewing gum and that’s for good reason. This is because numerous studies show that xylitol has powerful benefits for dental health and prevention of tooth decay. It is a naturally occurring sweetener that can reduce the number of cavity-causing bacteria in your mouth. One of the leading risk factors for tooth decay is a type of oral bacteria called Streptococcus mutans. This bacterium is mostly responsible for plaque. Although having some plaque on the teeth is normal, when it gets out of hand the immune system starts attacking the bacteria in it. This can lead to inflammatory gum diseases like gingivitis.
Use of Xylitol-containing products such as foods, chewing gum, candies, and toothpaste that provide one to twenty grams of Xylitol per day can significantly reduce the rate of cavity formation in both adults and children. Xylitol tastes sweet but, unlike sugar, it is not converted in the mouth to acids that cause tooth decay. These oral bacteria feed on glucose from food, but they cannot use xylitol. Replacing sugar with Xylitol therefore reduces the available fuel for the harmful bacteria causing the number of bacteria to decrease and leaving your mouth a safer place for your teeth. But the effects of Xylitol go beyond that. Even though the bad bacteria cannot use Xylitol for fuel, they still ingest it. When the bacteria are full of Xylitol, they are unable to take up glucose, so essentially their energy-producing pathway is “clogged” and they end up dying. In other words, when you chew gum with Xylitol (or use it as a sweetener), the sugar metabolism in the bacteria is blocked and they literally starve to death. It has been seen that a xylitol-sweetened chewing gum can reduce levels of the bad bacteria by 27-75 percent, while it had no effect on the friendly bacteria. Xylitol also has other dental benefit:
• Increases absorption of calcium in the digestive system, which is good for your teeth and may also protect against osteoporosis.
• Increases production and reduces acidity of saliva. Saliva contains calcium and phosphate, which get picked up by the teeth and aid in remineralization.
Numerous studies show that Xylitol, either by replacing sugar or adding it on top of the diet, can reduce cavities and tooth decay by as much as 30-85 percent. Because inflammation is at the root of many chronic diseases, it makes sense that reducing plaque and gum inflammation could have benefits for the rest of your body as well.
How does Xylitol help enamel?
Research has shown that the use of Xylitol also helps repair damage to the enamel. Saliva in itself protects the mouth and teeth. Stimulated saliva in particular contains all the components needed to repair early cavities. If sugar is only taken a couple of times a day, the saliva can do the job alone. But most people take sugar so often that the mouth’s own defensive tools are not enough. Saliva that has Xylitol is more alkaline than saliva stimulated by other sugar products. After using Xylitol products, the concentration of basic amino acids and ammonia in saliva and plaque may rise, and plaque pH rises as well. When pH is above 7, calcium and phosphate salts in saliva start to move into those parts of enamel that are weak. Therefore, soft, calcium-deficient enamel sites begin to harden again, making your teeth stronger.
Do you have any questions about xylitol and your teeth? Call Westermeier Martin Dental care to schedule an appointment with your dentist 716-655-5000 or request an appointment online.