What happens when you go to sleep without brushing your teeth?

We’ve all wondered it. Whether we’re feeling burned out at work, overwhelmed with studying, or just so exhausted from the day, scrimping on our nightly dental routine can become tempting. As tempting as this may be, neglecting your teeth at night can seriously jeopardise your oral health.  Below are  five night time habits that are a nightmare for our teeth.

1. Going to sleep without brushing your teeth

For most people, brushing your teeth twice daily is routine. But, whether out of pure laziness or extreme exhaustion, many of us have been guilty of skipping the act before going to sleep. So what really happens if you fall asleep without brushing your teeth?

Well, the absence of our antibacterial saliva while we sleep means we’re extra vulnerable to cavity-causing agents and gum disease at night. Plaque is the sticky bacterial film that coats our teeth, beginning as sugar particles and bacteria that accumulate in our mouth. This plaque begins to build up and calcify overnight, housing and feeding more harmful bacteria. This bacterium then penetrates the protective enamel of your teeth, attacking the more vulnerable layers underneath, leading to cavities and gingivitis (gum disease). If left untreated, cavities can lead to dental infections and, potentially, tooth loss.

Plaque can do more harm than causing cavities in the teeth, it can also cause discolouration, weaken the gums and lead to gingivitis – a form of gum disease. If plaque is left for too long to accumulate, it will eventually turn into tartar, also known as calculus. Forming along the gum line, bacteria present in plaque inflame and irritate the gums as tartar offers a porous area on your teeth for plaque to adhere to. Once plaque has hardened into tartar, it can only be removed by a dentist or hygienist during a professional cleaning. Similarly to plaque being the precursor to cavities, gingivitis is the precursor to periodontitis. Periodontitis is a severe bone infection spreads to the supporting bone around the teeth. Consequently, periodontal disease is the most common cause of tooth loss among adults.

All of this is, from discolouration and cavities to gum disease, for the most part is preventable through maintaining good oral hygiene and avoiding sugars. Dental experts suggest that even once-a-day brushing is already enough to keep bacteria and cavities at bay, providing the bad bacteria that has accumulated throughout the day has been cleansed.

So, while brushing our teeth both when we wake up and before we go to sleep is routine for many, brushing and flossing at night is actually more important.

2. Eating before you go to sleep

Most people are guilty of getting up at some point to grab a late night snack. However, making a frequent habit of eating before bed can have adverse effects on our oral health.

Although by carefully brushing your teeth, most of the decay causing bacteria from your mouth is eliminated, eating again before going to sleep allows those harmful bacterial organisms to thrive again. In the morning, you are more likely to wake with bad breath and with a fresh bio-film brimming with bacteria on your teeth. Is that furry feeling all too familiar?

When you brush your teeth, and then go directly to sleep, the leftover bacteria in your mouth goes on a diet. Deprived of their favourite foods like carbohydrates, sugars and other harmful oral bacteria, the bacteria in your mouth multiply slower and excrete fewer acids. Since acids dissolve tooth enamel, this is a good thing.

Remember, every time you eat, you also feed the bacteria in your mouth. And the last thing we want while we sleep is a couple hundred million bacterial organisms feasting and multiplying!

3. Grinding your teeth (bruxism)

Bruxism is a condition in which you involuntary grind or clench your teeth, especially overnight. While we don’t completely understand what causes bruxism, research suggests it may be due to a combination of physical, psychological and genetic factors.

Reported triggers of nocturnal bruxism include emotional stress, such as anger or anxiety, physical effort or stress, such as illness, nutritional deficiency or dehydration, issues with tooth alignment such as crowded, crooked and overlapping teeth, a protruding jaw, and the eruption of teeth in young children. Smoking tobacco, drinking caffeinated beverages or alcohol, and recreational drug use have also been reported to increase the risk of bruxism.

Nocturnal, or sleep, bruxism is especially worrisome as you may be unaware of having the condition until serious complications develop. Therefore, it is essential to know the signs and symptoms of bruxism and to seek regular dental care to prevent damage. Some of the symptoms include: teeth that are flattened, fractured, chipped or loose; increased tooth pain or sensitivity; excessive tiredness, tight or sore jaw, neck and/or face muscles; dull headache or ear ache; recession of gums; and finally, injury to the lips, cheeks, or tongue.

Left untreated, bruxism increases your risk of decay and can lead to cavities and irreparable fractures in the teeth which will eventually need root canal treatment, crowns or extraction.

If you suspect you might suffer from bruxism, see a dentist to inspect your teeth for signs of premature damage. This may prevent infection and possible tooth loss. You may also be fitted with a protective dental appliance, such as an occlusal splint (night guard) to protect your teeth.

 4. Going to sleep dehydrated

Hydration is essential to a healthy mouth. By rinsing away debris and harmful bacteria, drinking water inadvertently fights cavities and gum disease. Drinking water also helps your mouth stay hydrated and stimulates saliva production. Similarly to water, saliva rinses away debris and starves off cavity-causing bacteria – all day long!

We already know that acid from plaque build-up causes lesions that can develop into cavities, but did you know saliva can actually prevent acid attacks from plaque? That is because salvia also has remarkable remineralization capabilities which strengthens weakened enamel and prevents enamel loss. Without enough water, we are unlikely to produce adequate saliva, leaving our teeth more susceptible to irreversible damage.

Moisture loss equals more dehydration. Night time mouth breathing can also dry out our gums and the tissue lining our mouth, altering the natural bacteria, which can promote tooth decay and gum disease.

Overall, tooth decay thrives in dry mouth and our mouths are the driest overnight. If we go to bed dehydrated, not enough salvia can be produced to ensure bacteria is at bay while we sleep. So it is best we ensure that we are drinking enough water throughout the whole day. And perhaps, keep a glass of water next to our bed for if we wake up to a particularly dry mouth.

5. Not getting enough sleep

The average adult should be getting somewhere between 7 to 9 hours a sleep a night, and children between 8 to 12 hours. Despite the fact that chronic sleep deprivation is associated with some serious consequences for health and wellbeing, one in three Australians are not getting enough sleep!

Sleep helps keep your immune system strong. When you don’t get enough sleep, you lower your immunity which then puts you at a greater risk of developing oral infections. Sleep deprivation has been found to particularly trigger or worsen gum disease. This is largely because the body tends to produce more tissue damaging inflammatory hormones when a person doesn’t get enough sleep. This inflammation can lead first to gingivitis and then to periodontitis. The chronic inflammation and supressed immune system can also jeopardise the success of a dental implant.

Getting enough sleep is hard to achieve when life is so busy, but it is essential to maintaining our health.

So what?

Overall, these five night time habits are a nightmare for our teeth. While it’s important to invest a little time to oral care daily, even the most devoted brushers and flossers need to see a dentist regularly. Not only does a dentist remove calculus and seek cavities, they are also able to prevent potential issues from arising.


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