While moderate alcohol consumption can be part of a healthy lifestyle, alcohol is not generally considered healthy. Part of its mixed reputation comes from both the short- and long-term effects it has on your body and your health, from the brain, to blood sugar, to the liver.
But what are the effects of alcohol on your gums, mouth tissues, and teeth?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define moderate alcohol use as one drink a day for women, and no more than two drinks a day for men. They consider heavy drinking to be more than eight drinks a week for women, and 15 or more for men. Gum disease, tooth decay, and mouth sores are all much more likely for heavy drinkers, and alcohol abuse is the second most common risk factor for oral cancer.
But are moderate drinkers at risk for serious tooth and mouth disease? There isn’t much conclusive medical evidence, but dentists say that they see the effects of moderate drinking regularly.
"The color in beverages comes from chromogens,” explains Dr. John Grbic, director of oral biology and clinical research in dentistry at Columbia’s College of Dental Medicine. Chromogens attach to tooth enamel that’s been compromised by the acid in alcohol, and stain teeth. One way to bypass this is to drink alcoholic drinks with a straw.
“If you have a preference for mixing liquor with dark sodas or drinking red wine, say goodbye to a white smile,” says Dr. Timothy Chase, D.M.D., of SmilesNY. “Aside from the sugar content, dark colored soft drinks can stain or discolor the teeth. Remember to rinse your mouth with water between drinks.”
Beer is only marginally better, according to Dr. Joseph Banker, D.M.D., of Creative Dental. “Beer is acidic just like wine. That makes teeth more likely to be stained by the dark barley and malts found in darker beers.”
Dr. Banker also notes that drinks high in alcohol, like spirits, dry the mouth. Saliva keeps teeth moist and helps to remove plaque and bacteria from the tooth’s surface. Try to stay hydrated by drinking water while you drink alcohol.
Tooth damage related to alcohol is increased if you chew the ice in your drinks, which can break your teeth, or if you add citrus to your beverage. The American Dental Association notes that even a squeeze of lemon provides enough acid to etch away at tooth enamel.
One study did conclude that red wine kills oral bacteria called streptococci, which is associated with tooth decay. Of course, you shouldn’t start drinking red wine just for that reason!