If I change this habit, what does the future look like?
Hi, I’m Dr. Lynda Ulrich, a dentist in St. Albans Vermont and based on what I was taught in dental school,
I should be surprised that I am still practicing dentistry. When I was attending dental school in the 80s,
the remarkable results of fluoridation of public water systems was just being realized and a number of
dental schools around the country were closed in anticipation of a vastly reduced need for dentists.
They estimated that one in four of us in school at the time would be out of work by 2010.
And then, in came a flux in sugar sweetened beverages like our nation had never seen before. There
were many more options in quick stops, vending machines were added to schools, worksites, and other
public spaces, energy drinks, sports drinks, flavored waters, and sweet teas came on the market in a big
way—not to mention the increase in portion sizes and the “super-size” culture. Fluoridated water had
met its match and lost, giving all us dentists job security for all the wrong reasons.
What people are often surprised to hear is that it is not just the sugar that causes cavities and dental
decay, but it is what these drinks do to the pH (the acidity) of patients’ mouths. When I see patients with
cavities along the gum line, instead of asking if the patient drinks sugary drinks, I have come to ask, “Do
you drink anything tangy?” This helps me get to the bottom of what might be causing the problem
because drinks that patients might not think of as sugary, like cranberry juice or flavored waters, or any
kind of beverage with lemon in it, can wreak havoc on oral pH levels.
And what is particularly important to understand is that it takes 20 minutes for saliva to buffer up to
normal pH levels after sipping a beverage other than water or milk. So what I sometimes see is patients
who are “sippers” and may only drink one of these drinks a day, but they are slowly sipping all day and
don’t give their pH levels a chance to recover. So for perhaps an entire eight hour workday a patient
could be sipping and bathing their teeth in high pH levels the same as vinegar: “softening” their teeth
and making it even easier for sugar to do its damage.
Now, I get that it isn’t easy to change habits. I think everyone has habits they want to break and we can
all relate to how hard it is. However, because cutting down on sugary drinks is so crucial to oral health
(which is related to overall physical health, by the way), I have learned to ask myself and others an
important question, “If I change this habit, what does the future look like?” and then try to paint a
picture of that future. Focusing on the benefits of making the change can be very motivating. I also ask
them to think about what it is that they crave in the sugary drinks they consume and often we are able
to identify that it is the fizziness or the ice cold temperature and we can come up with swap ideas that
can satisfy that craving. Sometimes simple swaps can make all the difference and not feel like too much
of a sacrifice while doing wonders for your dental and overall health!