Sean Spicer chewed and swallowed 35 pieces of Orbit gum every morning during his White House tenure. It’s a detail I learned a year ago which inexplicably made its way into my long-term memory, like the time I saw a woman eat chicken salad on the train with a spoon or the fact that pandas are vegetarians by choice.
“Two and a half packs by noon,” Spicer told The Washington Post. “I talked to my doctor about it, he said it’s no problem.”
As an obsessive gum-chewer capable of polishing off a pack in four days, the absurdity of two-and-a-half-by-noon still makes me laugh (I guess I’m not alone; it was parodied on SNL). I’m less confident than Spicer and his doctor about the health implications, though. As an at-risk-of-TMJ youth and the writer of this Halo Top slam piece, I have fears pertaining to both the chewing and ingesting of gum and its flavoring. Since they’ve long taken a backseat to my habit, I asked a dentist and a doctor to pop my blissfully-ignorant bubble by answering some of my burning questions.
Dr. Steven Lin is a dentist with a focus on nutrition and the mouth-body connection, Dr. Donald Tsynman, MD is a New York-based, board-certified gastroenterologist and both have plenty of gum opinions.
Is regular gum chewing slowly eroding my teeth and messing with my jaw?
This is my first question for dentist Dr. Lin, and his answer surprises me: It actually might be helping.
“The big benefit of gum chewing that people don’t realize is that it actually makes you chew,” he tells me. “The jaw joint is a musculoskeletal joint that needs exercise.” He explains that our modern diets are much softer than those of our earlier ancestors. “When we don’t use the muscles of the face and jaw, the bones don’t grow as they should and it increases our risk of crooked teeth.” (His book The Dental Diet, out in early 2018, explores the impact of diet on tooth alignment.)
He also notes that the saliva your mouth produces when you chew gum has shown to decrease risk of tooth decay. “The increase in saliva,” Dr. Lin says, “which has immune cells and minerals that bathe and protect the teeth, is the antithesis of dry mouth, which is a known cause of a terrible type of decay called root caries.”
…but what about people at risk of TMJ?
TMJ — which refers to Temporomandibular Joint Disorders and is actually called TMD — is usually due to imbalances in the jaw, Dr. Lin tells me. “Chewing gum may exacerbate these problems (someone with TMJ may have a sore jaw from chewing), but the core issue is that there is a problem with the jaw and facial muscles.” He says that chewing gum on the “weak side” of the jaw may help strength the muscle — but he wouldn’t advise experimenting without a diagnosis.
The research shows gum-chewing doesn’t cause TMD (that’s a myth) but may, as Dr. Lin points out, make symptoms worse, so definitely consult your doctor.
Does it mess with my digestion?
This was a question for gastroenterologist Dr. Tsynman.
“The stimulus of chewing gum acts to send signals to the body that that food is about to enter and will subsequently need to be digested,” he tells me, confirming my fears. He explains the enzymes and acids that are activated and released when you chew (but are then never followed by actual food) can precipitate an overproduction of stomach acid, which may cause bloating. Further, if you swallow the gum, it will move right through you because, as he explains, “the body does not break it down into any beneficial nutritional components.”
Are the ingredients in gum flavoring harmful?
“Artificial sweeteners unfortunately are in many sugar-free gums available on shop shelves today,” says Dr. Lin. “The big problem with artificial sweeteners is how they change our microbiome. The oral microbiome is your protective population for your teeth and gums. Chewing with an artificial sweetener may, in the long term, change your oral and gut microbiome.” This is where your choice in gum is really important; Dr. Lin recommends buying sugar-free gum that’s not packed with chemicals (here is a list of eight brands of “clean gum”).
Dr. Tsynman gives me a similar warning: “Artificial sweeteners in gum, in sufficient quantity, will lead to increased bloating and/or diarrhea in some people as they cannot be digested or broken down appropriately.”
Final gum verdict: problematic or fine?
Dr. Lin says gum-chewing is okay for most but, as with anything, it comes with caveats that will be specific to the individual. “For those not having any issues who can get their hands on a non-artificial sweetener sugar-free gum, chewing gum is a great way to work your jaw out and produce a bit of extra saliva.” He says 30-60 minutes per day should be fine, but he advises people consult their practitioner if they’re experiencing negative symptoms, and not to use it to stave off hunger.
Dr. Tsynman agrees that the answer to this will differ by person, but he leans further toward abstinence as the safest solution. “Patients with significant TMJ, for example, probably should abstain from all gum-chewing completely.” Since there’s no way to know how much an individual will suffer from bloating or indigestion, either, he reccomends a gum-free life.
In a somewhat predictable turn of events, the conclusion seems to be: moderate by individual. If the measured, careful approach sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same one we came to with sugar and coffee, too. Call it annoying or comforting; at least it’s predictable. So, according to Dr. Lin and Dr. Tsynman, go ahead and chew gum if you really want to, but chomp on the good kind, and not for too long and not in place of eating, and cease if you experience symptoms like bloating, diarrhea or jaw pain. When in doubt? Consult your doctor or quit altogether.
Photography: Louisiana Mei Gelpi
Creative Direction: Emily Zirimis