Marijuana and Oral Health: What You Need to Know
Is smoking weed ruining your teeth?
With many states legalizing marijuana either for medicinal or recreational purposes (or both), it won’t be long before researchers will be able to conduct comprehensive studies on the impact of cannabis use on our overall well-being including oral health for the growing number of people using it. For years, dentists have been studying the oral health effects of smoking cannabis based on anecdotal evidence from patients. Whether you’re a recreational user or use cannabis to get relief from a health condition, here are some things you should know about the impact of marijuana on oral health.
Now that marijuana use is becoming more mainstream and is no longer illegal in many states, it’s time to clear up some misconceptions and misinformation about the drug. After alcohol, marijuana is the most commonly used psychotropic drug in the United States.
Cannabis (AKA weed, pot, grass, dope, marijuana, hash and more) is a cannabinoid drug-one that joins with cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body. These receptors in the central nervous system are part of the endocannabinoid system which plays a role in many physiological processes including mood, memory, sleep, appetite, and pain. Basically, cannabinoids impact the way cells send and process messages and users get a mild sedative or mood-enhancing effect when using marijuana recreationally. In clinical applications, it can relieve pain and prevent nausea.
The most common form of cannabinoids is cannabis, the dried leaves and buds (flowers) of the Cannabis sativa plant that is smoked in a bong (water pipe) or a joint (rolled in paper) and through vaping pens. In addition, marijuana edibles, food and beverage products infused with cannabis, are becoming more widely available. Every day there are also topical creams, liquids, sprays and oils with cannabis available.
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the cannabinoid, one of hundreds in cannabis, that causes the psychoactive effects and makes users feel high. CBD (cannabidiol) was approved by the FDA to treat certain forms of epilepsy, it is a nonpsychoactive compound extracted from either hemp or marijuana and is available in oils, supplements, teas, lotions, and many more options. Many people use CBD to get relief from insomnia, anxiety, and depression, but CBD doesn’t make them feel high because it doesn’t contain the THC ingredient.
Throughout the last 5,000 years of history, there is evidence of marijuana being used medicinally and spiritually from Ancient Egypt to China to India to Rome. In 1600s America, hemp-the fiber of the cannabis plant-was commonly grown to create ropes, clothing, and sails. By the 1800s marijuana had been accepted in mainstream medicine and was used to treat opioid withdrawal, stimulate appetite and relieve vomiting and nausea. Marijuana’s history and acceptance in America has evolved over time. Initially, it was used as a painkiller and an ingredient in many medications as well as used recreationally when Mexican immigrants first introduced the concept to the U.S. Later, marijuana became popular in the counterculture of the 1960s as a harmless high. But when the United States Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 marijuana was classified as a Schedule 1 drug just like heroin and LSD. The act also stated that marijuana had no medicinal value which then made it difficult for doctors and scientists to continue to study its health benefits.
Today, marijuana remains illegal under United States federal law. However, many states have now legalized its sale for medical and/or recreational use. As of January 1, 2020, 11 states have fully legalized marijuana following the state of Colorado’s lead-the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2014.
How Does Marijuana Effect Oral Health?
Smoking marijuana, like smoking tobacco, can lead to several negative effects on your oral health. Historically, frequent smokers had more problems with gum disease and inflammation, but a direct correlation to marijuana use is complicated to link due to other factors being present. Other factors in frequent users include high tobacco use, other drug and alcohol use, as well as generally poor oral hygiene habits, and less visits to the dentist for preventative care. Now that marijuana is being used by a more diverse population, in coming years dental professionals will gather more evidence for the true effects of marijuana on oral health.
One of the common effects of smoking pot many users experience is “cotton mouth.” Xerostomia or dry mouth is caused by under-functioning salivary glands. The THC in pot sends signals to the endocannabinoid receptors to limit saliva production when smoking pot. Saliva is important to good oral health because it helps break down food, prevents high levels of plaque build-up, flushes out bacteria, prevents bad breath, slows down tooth decay, and more.
Marijuana is known to cause the “munchies,” and unfortunately most users don’t reach for tooth-healthy options when they are high to satisfy their hunger and thirst. The higher sugar content of processed food and beverage choices that most users who are high prefer can lead to a higher incidence of tooth decay and cavities. This is likely one of the reasons dentists see a higher rate of caries (tooth decay) in marijuana users especially in teeth that normally aren’t prone to decay.
The high temperatures inhaled when smoking marijuana can irritate the gums and lead to swelling, bleeding and sensitivity. There are also carcinogens present with the smoke that can be damaging. Ultimately, pot smokers need to take proper care of their gums when using to better prevent periodontal disease and gingivitis.
With continued smoking, your teeth will likely get stained from the marijuana smoke over time. Even with good oral hygiene and regular trips to the dentist, discoloration is still likely when smoking pot and you might want to consider whitening solutions.
Increased levels of bacteria
Cavity-causing bacteria seems to increase in the mouths of those who smoke marijuana. Some studies suggest that this is because smoke from cannabis suppresses the immune system in the mouth. The more bacteria in your mouth the higher chance of developing cavities.
Good Oral Hygiene Practices for Marijuana Smokers
If you smoke pot regularly, it’s important to be aware of the negative impacts it can have on your oral health including:
- Increased bacteria in your mouth
- Tooth decay
- Bad breath
- Periodontal disease
- Stained teeth
Now that you are aware of the potential negative effects of marijuana on your oral health, there are things you can do to minimize the impact:
- Brush and floss daily – As a marijuana smoker, you must be more diligent than others when caring for your teeth at home. You should brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. Ask your dentist if a prescription-strength toothpaste would be recommended for you. Be sure to floss daily as well to help keep your gum tissue healthy. Swishing a teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in 8 oz. of warm water in your mouth and over your teeth can help remove the sticky film left by marijuana smoke. Brushing thoroughly right after smoking is important to minimize the negative effects.
- Stay hydrated – Drink lots of water throughout the day. This keeps you hydrated and will help combat dry mouth.
- Reduce sugary and processed snacks – Keep in mind that the more sugary and processed snacks you reach for to satiate your appetite will contribute to tooth decay. Try to select teeth-healthier options. Staying away from sugary and caffeinated beverages will also allow your mouth to stay hydrated because it won’t interfere with proper saliva production.
- Get a dental exam – At least twice a year, more if recommended by your dentist, you should get a professional cleaning and dental exam.
- Talk to your dentist – If you regularly smoke marijuana, your dental professionals will help you understand how marijuana may be affecting your oral health so you can make informed decisions and take preventative measures to minimize negative effects.
Don’t keep your marijuana use from your dentist. It’s important to be open with your dentist regarding your lifestyle so that they can advise and inform you about the best way to keep your mouth and teeth healthy and so they can provide the care you need. Although more research needs to be done on the effects of edible marijuana products, currently it appears that many of the negative oral effects are caused by smoking it. Therefore, consuming edibles as an alternative to smoking pot might be a good strategy to protect your oral health. Along with brushing, flossing and rinsing daily, be sure to schedule your regular teeth cleaning and dental exam today.