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nutrients for oral health: young woman brushing teeth

5 Key Nutrients For Oral Health, According To Dentists

It’s no secret that excessive sugar consumption can contribute to tooth decay and gum disease. After all, sugar and soda are widely regarded as oral health enemies one and two. The thing is, most people don’t realize that eating for oral health doesn’t start and stop with limiting sugar intake. 

Your overall diet plays a crucial role in oral health, says doctor of dental medicine Dr. Alice Hoang D.M.D., F.A.G.D., F.I.C.O.I., A.A.D.S.M., of Brooklyn Mint Dental in Brooklyn, New York. “To maintain good oral hygiene and health, you need a diet filled with several vitamins and minerals,” she says. For example, calcium and vitamin D are essential for strong teeth, while vitamin C supports overall gum health, adds board-certified cosmetic dentist Dr. Kevin Sands, D.D.S., with Beverly Hill Cosmetic Dentistry in Beverly Hills, California. 

Ahead, a closer look at the nutrients that are most important for promoting (and preserving!) oral health. 

  • ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Dr. Alice Hoang D.M.D., F.A.G.D., F.I.C.O.I., A.A.D.S.M., is a doctor of dental medicine with Brooklyn Mint Dental in Brooklyn, New York. Dr. Kevin Sands, D.D.S., is a board-certified cosmetic dentist with Beverly Hill Cosmetic Dentistry in Beverly Hills, California.

The Health Of Your Body Starts In Your Mouth 

It won’t surprise you that poor oral hygiene can lead to a range of oral health problems, such as tooth decay and gum disease, shares Sands. But sound oral health is essential for more than just pearly whites, pink gums, and decent breath. 

“The health of your body starts in your mouth,” he says. If not properly maintained, your mouth can become a breeding ground for harmful bacteria. And since the mouth is connected to the rest of the digestive tract, when there are pathogenic bacteria in your mouth, they can travel into your gut, where they can enter your bloodstream and other internal organs, Hoang explains. There, they can cause a range of health issues, such as endocarditis (inflammation of the inner lining of the heart)

“Poor oral health has also been linked with cardiovascular problems, respiratory infections, and even complications during pregnancy,” adds Sands. Clearly, keeping your smile healthy is about far more than just appearances.

5 Nutrients That Are Essential For Oral Health

So, how does one eat their way to healthier teeth? There are a few nutrients you’ll need your fair share of.

1. Calcium

You likely had a parent at one point wax poetic about the benefits of chugging calcium-rich milk for bone health. However, most people leave milk, as well as a focus on consuming adequate calcium, behind in middle school. Getting enough of this mineral, however, isn’t just important for growing boys and girls—it’s important for anyone with teeth, according to Sands. 

“Teeth are considered bones, and consuming adequate calcium throughout your lifespan is crucial for maintaining their health,” he explains. Calcium is a primary component of tooth enamel, the hard outer layer of the teeth that works to protect them against decay and damage. “Without enough calcium in the diet, tooth enamel may weaken, leading to an increased risk of cavities, tooth sensitivity, and other dental issues,” he explains. 

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In fact, one study published in Nutrition Journal looked at the calcium and dairy intake of older adults. They found that those who consumed ample calcium (1,000 milligrams per day for men aged 51 to 70 and 1200 for women 51 and over) had lower plaque scores. 

Science may show that getting the recommended amount of calcium is key for oral and tooth health, but unfortunately, an estimated 44 percent of Americans are deficient in calcium (also called hypocalcemia). As far as your mouth is concerned, it is common for calcium deficiency to make itself known through tooth decay, increased sensitivity, frequent tooth chipping and cracking, and greater incidence of cavities, says Sands. If you notice an uptick in any of these issues, get to your dentist ASAP and consider paying attention to calcium intake. 

“You can ensure sufficient calcium intake through foods like dairy products, leafy greens, almonds, and fortified foods,” Sands says. If those foods don’t make a regular appearance in your diet, you may consider a calcium supplement

2. Vitamin D

As important as calcium is for oral health, it can’t work as effectively if vitamin D isn’t present. “Vitamin D is necessary for proper calcium absorption,” says Sands. Basically, it functions as calcium’s taxi driver, carrying it through transcellular pathways in the body and helping it get where it needs to go, per research published in Molecular Cellular Endocrinology

Given that calcium and vitamin D are, nutritionally speaking, two peas in a pod, to reap the aforementioned benefits of calcium, you also need to get enough vitamin D, says Sands. 

The benefits of adequate vitamin D consumption, however, aren’t limited to its role in carrying calcium to and fro. “Vitamin D has also been shown to support tooth mineralization,” says Hoang. (That’s the natural tooth repair process.) “Recent research even shows that vitamin D helps the body fight gum disease by strengthening the body’s antibacterial defense system,” she says. 

How much vitamin D do you need to consume, exactly? Adults should aim to get at least 600 IU per day, according to the National Institute of Health. Get less than that and you may experience the oral health issues associated with inadequate calcium consumption, such as brittle teeth, sensitivity, and increased presence of cavities. Orally speaking, “vitamin D deficiency can also cause burning mouth syndrome, dryness, tooth decay, and a metallic taste,” says Hoang. 

Vitamin D can be consumed through foods like egg yolks, saltwater fish (think salmon, tuna, sardines), liver, and fortified cereals. However, it is primarily obtained by sun exposure. If you live in an environment where sunlight is limited or spend little time outside, consider a vitamin D supplement to fill any potential gaps.

3. Vitamin C

If you drove a time machine back to middle school history class, you’d likely wind up getting a refresher on scurvy. Scurvy, if you don’t know, is a disease marked by vitamin C deficiency that can cause bleeding gums and tooth decay—and that killed millions of sailors who didn’t have access to fresh foods (like citrus) back in the day. 

The link between this powerhouse nutrient and your mouth? “Vitamin C supports collagen synthesis,” explains Sands. Collagen supports the health and integrity of the connective tissues in your gums, so when collagen levels dip (as they do when vitamin C is low), your gum health takes a hit, he explains. More specifically, individuals usually notice gum inflammation and increased risk of brushing- and flossing-related gum injury and other gum bleeding. 

“Vitamin C also supports wound healing and immune function,” Sands says. Fall short on it and those oral cuts that appear will also take longer to heal, putting you at an increased risk for gum infection. Not ideal for anyone. 

The National Institutes of Health recommends that men get 90 milligrams of vitamin C per day and that women get 75. To maintain optimal gum health, Sands says it’s important to meet those recommendations by eating vitamin C-rich foods like red bell peppers, kiwi, green bell peppers, brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, kale, and citrus fruits. “You might also consider supplementation under medical guidance,” he adds. 

4. Vitamin K 

More than two-thirds of adults don’t get the recommended amounts of vitamin K (120 micrograms daily for men and 90 for women). Systemically, inadequate vitamin K intake can result in a slew of complications, including bleeding and blood clotting disorders, impaired bone development and health, and potential cardiovascular risks. As far as your mouth is concerned, vitamin K deficiency can lead to inflamed and bleeding gums, says Hoang. Vitamin K protects your gums from oxidative damage, which is associated with periodontitis and other oral health diseases, she adds. 

Further, research published in 2020 in the journal Monographs in Oral Science suggests that because vitamin K deficiency can increase the overall risk of hemorrhage, it may increase the risk for individuals who undergo oral surgery or suffer an oral injury. Since vitamin K helps support blood clotting, deficiency can slow healing and increase bleeding risk.

Vitamin K is most abundant in green leafy vegetables, soybeans, and fortified foods. But if meat and potatoes make up the bulk of your diet, you might consider adding vitamin K to your supplement routine. Often, you’ll find ample amounts in a high-quality multivitamin—but you can learn more about standalone supplements here.

5. B Vitamins

“The B vitamins have a wide spectrum of activity and have a beneficial effect on many processes in the body—and they’re especially beneficial for oral health,” says Hoang. 

The exact benefits of sound intake vary from B vitamin to B vitamin. But B vitamins act as coenzymes in enzymatic processes that support cellular functioning, including those within the brain and central nervous system, as well as energy production. So, when B vitamin levels are low, most bodily systems work less efficiently—including the healing of gums and oral cavities, says Hoang. “Inadequate B vitamin intake may also increase the risk of chapped lips, tongue inflammation, and gum irritation,” Hoang adds. 

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A handful of specific B vitamins are especially important for oral health. Adequate vitamin B3 (niacin) consumption, for example, helps maintain healthy oral mucosa (the tissues inside the mouth) and fresh breath, says Hoang. Research suggests the nutrient’s protective effects also promote a healthy oral microbiome.

Meanwhile, adequate vitamin B12 (cobalamin) may be crucial for warding off oral ulcers, she says. Many providers recommend that people prone to canker sores take a vitamin B12 supplement, which is simple, inexpensive, low-risk, and seems to be effective. 

All in all, “the lack of vitamins from this group can worsen the health of the oral cavity,” Hoang says. Generally, all of the daily B vitamin recommendations can be met by eating a well-rounded diet—but your healthcare provider and dentist may suggest supplementation if your levels are low. Certain groups, such as plant-based eaters and those with gut health concerns, often come up short.

The Bottom Line

“Ensuring a balanced diet rich in essential nutrients is vital for supporting overall oral health and preventing dental issues beyond sugar-related decay,” says Sands. Get low in some of these nutrients—such as calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C, vitamin K, and B vitamins—and your oral health can suffer. As such, if you are experiencing frequent oral health issues, your dentist may suggest significant diet intervention or supplementation. 

However important a nutrient-rich diet is for oral health, it’s still important to check your other boxes, too. “You also need to prioritize regular dental check-ups and maintain proper oral hygiene habits, such as brushing and flossing,” Sands says. Given that oral health really can impact overall health, you really don’t want to skimp on any of these mouth-healthy habits.  

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