Push packet gum on blue background

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Think the only thing gum can do is freshen your breath? Think again.

Gum: Today we think of it as something to freshen your breath, something you hope doesn’t get stuck to the bottom of your shoe, or an easy way to keep your ears from popping on an airplane. But did you know that humans have been chewing gum for thousands of years? One of the oldest pieces of gum ever found is almost 6,000 years old and made of birch tar, and some scientists think that early humans used it to clean their teeth. Paleolithic humans: They’re just like us!

Our Stone Age ancestors may have been onto something more than just the paleo-diet: In some circumstances, gum can be good for you. Chewing sugar-free gum can have positive on dental health, mental health, and even stomach health. We spoke with Michael Dodds, BDS, Ph.D. and senior principal scientist at Mars, Incorporated, to get the facts on why gum is more than just something to blow bubbles with. He shared 10 positive impacts that chewing sugar-free gum can have, ranging from slowing loss of tooth enamel to raising your metabolic rate. So, whether you’re already a gum lover or not, it’s time to start ‘chewin.

The Benefits of Chewing Gum

Prevents cavities

When it comes to gum’s impact on dental health, it’s all about saliva flow. Dr. Dodds explains, “The act of chewing stimulates saliva flow up to 10 times more than when you’re not chewing. This helps neutralize acids in the dental plaque that cause cavities.” That acid neutralization can be particularly helpful at the very onset of a new cavity, explains Dr. Dodds: “Saliva contains calcium, which helps to build and strengthen teeth, so stimulating saliva production can be great if you have a microscopic cavity forming. Before the cavity has become a physical hole in the tooth, gum chewing can help raise pH and reduce acidity to get that calcium back into the tooth.”

Combats dry mouth

If you’ve ever suffered from dry mouth, you know how uncomfortable — and often embarrassing — it can be. Dry mouth can occur when you’re nervous, increases in frequency as you age, or can be the result of of certain medications. It can make it difficult to swallow or speak and can lead to bad breath. The best way to combat dry mouth? Once again, the answer is saliva production. Dr. Dodds explains: “The act of chewing coupled with the taste of the gum stimulates saliva flow. This coats the mouth, which helps you to swallow food and to speak. It also neutralizes acids that cause dental plaque, which is one of the main causes of bad breath.”

Cleans your teeth

You know that icky feeling in your mouth when you’ve just eaten lunch, but you don’t have anywhere to brush your teeth? Gum’s got your back. “I want to be clear that gum chewing isn’t a substitute for brushing your teeth,” warns Dr. Dodds, “but sugar-free gum can help rinse away any residual food or sugars lingering in your mouth, and just generally cleans your mouth and freshens everything up.” Sounds to us like the perfect antidote to our morning [and for some of us out there, afternoon] coffee breath.

Slows the loss of tooth enamel

Regularly consuming acidic foods, like lemon juice or coffee, can speed up the loss of tooth enamel. According to Dr. Dodds, “Saliva stimulation caused by chewing sugar-free gum creates a protective film that coats the mouth and can slow enamel loss.” Saliva flow from gum chewing can also help offset some of the harm we do to our teeth during the day by snacking or drinking sugary beverages. Once again, it’s spit to the rescue.

Keeps you alert

Studies have shown that chewing gum can help keep you focused and attentive. While this might work for keeping you from nodding off at a boring meeting, Dr. Dodds warns that the extent of this effect can only go so far: “It may keep you alert in certain circumstances, but I certainly wouldn’t trust chewing gum to help you stay awake if you’re very exhausted and doing something that requires complete attention, like if you’re driving and feeling drowsy.”

May help memory

Research into the relationship between gum chewing and memory is sparse, but it’s also an area of study scientists are delving into as we speak. Dr. Dodds cites a study that looks at the impact of tooth loss on cognitive decline: “This is all still in early stages, but there may be evidence that for people with Alzheimer’s and other related aging issues, losing teeth and the ability to chew may be associated with decreased cognitive function.” Another recent study out of Korea suggests that reduced chewing efficiency may influence cognitive function.

May raise metabolic rate

New research that measured how many calories participants burned while chewing gum found that it could raise your metabolic rate by up to 15 percent. This might be connected to the days before our ancestors started cooking and would spend up to five or six hours a day chewing fibrous, tough food that hadn’t been softened by processing or cooking. And regardless of any impact on your metabolism, chewing sugar-free gum might be a better way to keep your mouth occupied than mindless snacking.

Helps with nausea and heartburn

Don’t have an antacid handy? Try chewing a piece of gum instead. “Heartburn happens when acid from the stomach travels into the lower part of the esophagus. The reason chewing gum helps is that you’re getting saliva down there, which can neutralize the acid and send it back down the esophagus. I’ve actually used it for heartburn myself,” says Dr. Dodds.

Eases anxiety

According to social worker Alysha Tagert, popping a piece of gum can help slow your brain down in a moment of panic. Focusing all five senses on the gum — how it looks, how it tastes, how it smells, how it feels in your mouth, the sound of chewing — is a grounding technique that can help soothe you and regulate your emotions.

Stimulates bowel function

This one is surprising, but true. Says Dr. Dodds: “There is quite a body of evidence for this. Doctors will suggest that patients chew gum after surgery, particularly abdominal surgery, to ‘start the process.’” A study by the NIH found that “Gum chewing can stimulate bowel movement and promotes the return of bowel function through the cephalic-vagal reflex and increased intestinal enzyme secretion.” Although that sounds complicated, it boils down to this: Even if you’re not post-op, chewing gum might help get things moving down there.

Regardless of which of these issues chewing sugar-free gum might help you solve, one thing’s for sure: It’s a tasty little treat that you can bring virtually anywhere. So grab a pack and toss it in your purse or your pocket…and make sure you’ve got enough to share.

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