Athletes work hard to keep their bodies healthy. Running, weightlifting, stretching, cycling and other workouts combine to make a body lean, fit and strong. But one area of the body may actually be harmed by all of that exercise the teeth.

A new study published in The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports finds that heavy training may contribute to dental problems in exercisers.

For the study, researchers at the dental school at University Hospital Heidelberg in Germany recruited 35 competitive triathletes and 35 healthy non-athletes of roughly the same age and gender as their athletic peers. The study began with a complete oral exam on each participant including saliva collection and a questionnaire for which participants answered questions about their diets, their consumption of sports drinks and other beverages, their normal oral hygiene routines, and their exercise habits, if any.

Fifteen of the athletes also completed an increasingly strenuous run for about 35 minutes on an outdoor track, during which their saliva was collected several times.

The results? Participants in the "athletic" group had significantly greater erosion of their tooth enamel. They also tended to have more cavities and their risk for cavities increased in direct relation to the frequency of training. Thus, the more hours an athlete spent exercising, the more likely she was to have cavities.

So exercise brings on cavities.  But why?

Researchers did not find any link between the consumption of sports drinks and the risk of cavities. That was surprising as they were convinced that it was this element of the diet that was contributing to dental issues. Nor did they find any differences in the amount or chemical makeup of saliva between athletes and nonathletes at rest.  

But it was during exercise that the biggest changes took place.

The amount of saliva that the athletes produced during their track run decreased as the workout continued regardless of whether or not they consumed water or other beverages. The chemical composition of the saliva also changed. So the athletes' mouths became drier and also more alkaline. And guess what? Excess alkalinity in saliva has been linked to the development of tartar plaques other dental problems.

Now it's important to remember that this was a small study and the athletes who participated worked out an average of nine hours per week  which is significantly more than the average exerciser. Still, the takeaway is that your teeth are as important to your overall health as your joints and muscles. Be sure to brush, floss and visit your dentist regularly to keep your choppers as healthy as the rest of your body.

Related posts on MNN:

Exercise and your teeth: Why one may be bad for the other
Study finds that vigorous exercise may be linked to poor dental health — but don't blame sports drinks.