In a study recently published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, it was found that 278 Athletes who visited the dental clinic at the athletes village during the 2012 Olympics had poor oral health when compared to non-athletes of a similar age group. 55% of those examined were found to have cavities and 45% showed dental erosion.
When interviewed by the BBC, lead researcher Ian Needleman stated that
“Eating large amounts of carbohydrates regularly, including sugary energy drinks, was damaging teeth.”
He also added that
“Stress on the immune system from intense training may leave athletes at risk of oral disease and that a fixation on training, preparation and other aspects of health may leave little time or awareness of oral health”
Due to the way that they are marketed, we are often lead to associate sports supplements with health and vitality. They no doubt have a purpose, but everyday use can be problematic and potentially lead to issues with our oral health in the same way that sweets and soft drinks can. Excess consumption of sugary food can also lead to elevated levels of systemic inflammation and the development of conditions like type-2 diabetes and heart disease.
As a follower of a Paleo-type diet which limits the consumption of refined carbohydrates (sugar), this study, and in particular the comments of Professor Needlemen, reinforce my belief that consumption of sports supplements should be avoided outside of competition. If you are an endurance athlete, your main objective should be to develop an efficient aerobic system and to teach your body to burn fat as it’s main energy source. Whilst the body uses a small amount of carbohydrate when exercising aerobically, consuming sugary drinks or foods during training can inhibit the fat burning process and limit aerobic development.
Whilst racing, you are likely to be pushing harder and your body will be burning more sugar so you will benefit from some easily absorbed carbohydrate. This is the time to be periodically consuming a gel or an energy bar.
I would add the caveat that whilst you shouldn’t be using them on a day-to-day basis, it is definitely a good idea to try out your chosen sports supplement pre-race, just to make sure that your body can deal with it.
So, if you want to maintain healthy teeth and maximise aerobic development, save the gels, energy drinks and bars for race day and for the rest of the time, eat real food!
Many of us will have had times when our health has suffered after a period of intense stress, training or competition. This can manifest as injuries, colds, infections or in a variety of other ways and in his comment above, Prof Needlemen has pointed out how it can also leave us with premature dental problems.
It is all to easy to allow our athletic aspirations, to drive us into a situation where our training starts to compromise our health and we are fit but not healthy. Most of us are not elite athletes with Olympic medals at stake and it’s just not worth sacrificing our long term well being for short term performance gains.
In addition to moderating sugar consumption, cleaning our teeth twice a day and following advice from our dentist, it is vital that we learn to recognise and act upon signs that we may be pushing too hard. It is also important to evaluate how things like stress and the quality of our sleep may be influencing our health and fitness and not just how we exercise.
Acupuncture can be helpful in promoting a sense of relaxation and it has been shown to regulate levels of neurotransmitters and hormones in those suffering from stress and “hence altering the brain’s mood chemistry to help to combat negative affective states” (Lee 2009; Cheng 2009; Zhou 2008). Why not come and give it a try?
I meant to add in the article above that the link between an Paleo-type diet and oral health is nothing new. Weston A. Price identified the link between modern Western diets and dental problems in the 1930’s and in his book “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration”, he also explained the relationship between a variety of health problems and excess consumption of sugar, grains and vegetable fats. There is some excellent information on this subject at the Weston A. Price foundation website which is a not for profit organisation.