Save Your Smile, Boost Your Health

PHOTO: Taking care of your mouth can brighten your smile and make you healthier.
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We subconsciously connect a dull smile with age -- enamel wears over time, darkening our teeth, says Lauren Solomon, author of Image Matters! First Steps on the Journey to Your Best Self. "

A bright smile, on the other hand, gives the impression of good health and youth," she says. One quick anti-aging beauty tip: Cut back on teeth-staining habits such as drinking coffee and red wine and smoking cigarettes.

But oral health habits are much more than skin-deep. Every day, it seems like another new study links oral health problems to other big health issues such as heart disease, premature birth, and erectile dysfunction. Of course, taking care of your chompers starts with daily brushing and flossing and regular dentist checkups -- something we're not all so diligent about.

About 17 percent of adults admit to never flossing, according to one report, and about 25% of adults ages 35 to 59 have untreated tooth decay. But even if you're a dentist's dream patient, there are other surprising habits to start—and to skip—for a prettier, healthier smile. Here, 10 simple steps to try today.

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Limit Carbs to Mealtimes

Even not-so-sweet treats—like a handful of potato chips or a whole wheat roll—can be as damaging to your teeth and gums as a double-fudge brownie, if you're not careful.

That's because all carbohydrates break down into simple sugars, which are ultimately converted by bacteria in the mouth into plaque, a sticky residue that is the primary trigger of gum disease and cavities. Carb-based foods such as breads and crackers tend to have a chewy, adhesive texture, making it easier for them to get caught between teeth or under the gum line, where bacteria can then accumulate, says Dr. Christine Gerbstadt, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

Have carbs at mealtimes rather than as a snack. When you eat a larger amount of food, you produce more saliva, which helps wash food particles away.

Don't Drink and Brush

Here's one time when you shouldn't clean your teeth...

Right after you drink a soda or other acidic beverage, says Mary Hayes, DDS, spokesperson for the Chicago Dental Society: Acid in the drink, combined with the abrasive action of brushing, can erode your tooth enamel.

To protect your pearly whites against the caustic compounds in soda, sip water or chew gum to activate acid-neutralizing saliva -- then brush your teeth. It's also smart to follow the same routine if you have chronic heartburn , which keeps your mouth in an acidic state.

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Vitamin C is the cement that holds all of your cells together.

"So just as it's vital for your skin, it's important for the health of your gum tissue," says Paula Shannon Jones, DDS, spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry.

People who consumed less than 60 mg per day of C (8 ounces of orange juice or one orange contains more than 80 mg) were 25% more likely to have gum disease than people who took in 180 mg or more, according to a study of more than 12,000 US adults conducted at the State University of New York University at Buffalo.

Add a daily glass of OJ to your breakfast routine, and make sure your multi meets the RDA for vitamin C.

Have Tea

The antioxidants are good for your gums.

Black and green teas contain polyphenols, antioxidant plant compounds that prevent plaque from adhering to your teeth and help reduce your chances of developing cavities and gum disease.

"Tea also has potential for reducing bad breath because it inhibits the growth of the bacteria that cause the odor," explains Christine D. Wu, PhD, professor and director of caries research at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry, who has conducted several studies on tea and oral health. Many teas also contain fluoride (from the leaves and the water it's steeped in), which helps protect tooth enamel from decay and promotes healthy teeth.

Steep a cup every afternoon. Added bonus: a bit of caffeine for a postlunch perk.

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Sip with a Straw

Soda junkies, listen up!

Most sodas, sports drinks, and juices contain acids, such as citric and phosphoric, that can erode dental enamel -- even if they're diet or sugar-free versions. Sipping acidic drinks through a straw positioned toward the back of your mouth limits their contact with your teeth and helps preserve the enamel, says a study in the British Dental Journal.

Stock up on straws in your desk drawer at work and kitchen at home so you always have one handy.

Boost Calcium Consumption

The same way the mineral makes for strong bones, it's also necessary to protect your pearly whites. People who get at least 800 mg a day are less likely to develop severe gum disease, says a study by the Buffalo researchers. The reason: About 99 percent of the calcium in your body is in your bones and teeth. Dietary calcium -- available in foods like cheese, milk, and yogurt -- strengthens the alveolar bone in the jaw, which helps hold your teeth in place.

The recommended amount is 1,000 mg per day for women younger than 51 and 1,200 mg for those older. A calcium supplement could do the trick, but you should aim to get as much as you can from your diet. You get about 300 mg each from an 8-ounce glass of milk, a 6-ounce yogurt, or a 1.5- to 2-ounce serving of cheese.

Protect Your Smile When You Swim

It sounds surprising, but dental researchers have found that excessively chlorinated pool water can erode and stain tooth enamel.

If you're a frequent swimmer, pack a toothbrush along with your towel when you take your next dip. "More chlorine in a pool may equal more protection against bacteria, but overdoing it lowers the pool's pH level and makes it dangerously acidic," says Matt Messina, DDS, consumer advisor for the American Dental Association.

Brush your teeth and use a fluoride rinse immediately after spending more than an hour in the pool. "If you're swimming a lot and have any tooth discomfort whatsoever, check with your dentist," adds Messina.

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Yep, it helps keep the dentist away too.

Crunchy foods, including apples, celery, and carrots, act like little toothbrushes when you chew them, and they actually help scrub away stubborn stains over time. The cleansing effect on your teeth may be noticeable -- if ever so slightly -- especially if you're a coffee drinker who wasn't eating apples every day to begin with.

"The mildly acidic nature and astringent quality of apples, combined with their rough, fiber-rich flesh, makes them the ideal food for cleansing and brightening teeth," explains Jeff Golub-Evans, DDS, founding president of the New York Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.

If you start eating an apple a day as a between-meal snack and don't get the chance to brush your teeth afterward, be sure to chase it with a glass of water to rinse away the sugar, acid, and any plaque it may have removed from your enamel.

Smooch Your Partner

From the who-knew school of thought: Kissing your mate can also help safeguard your grin. Although you enjoy a kiss for other reasons, it also increases saliva in your mouth, which cleans your teeth of the bacteria that can cause cavities, according to Anne Murray, DDS, a spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry,

Consider this a healthy excuse to pucker up! But don't sweat it if you have no one to kiss. Sugar-free gum with xylitol will also do the trick.

Go for Whole Grains

Whole grains are like dental insurance, suggests research from McMaster University, Canada. Add this to the laundry list of their benefits, which include keeping your heart healthy, preventing diabetes, and more: Whole grains keep teeth healthier longer.

Among 34,000 men studied for 14 years, those who ate at least three daily whole grain servings were 23 percent less likely to suffer tooth-loosening gum inflammation (periodontitis) than those averaging fewer than one. Eating more whole grains helps stabilize blood sugar levels, which has been shown to reduce periodontitis in diabetics.

Swap white rice and regular pasta for brown and whole wheat versions. Check labels to make sure brown rice or whole grains are listed as the first ingredient.

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