Chew on This

1514 WellnessWhy gum can actually be good for you

“Take that gum out of your mouth!” my loving but vociferous Italian grandmother (is there any other kind?) told my five-year-old self. “It’s a dirty habit!” But despite the adult warnings that gum would stay in my stomach for seven years if I swallowed it, and despite my grandmother’s chidings, chomping on gum is a habit I never abandoned. To this day, my OCD does not even allow me out of the house without a pack of gum. After some investigation of the habit, I realized that although my grandmother wasn’t wrong about much, she had missed the mark on this one.

As it turns out, chewing gum can provide a myriad of health benefits for not only the mouth, but also the mind. Dentists approve of the stuff, too: “Clinical studies have shown that chewing sugarless gum for 20 minutes following meals can help prevent tooth decay,” according to the American Dental Association (ADA).

But let’s rewind a bit: when and where did the illogical human behavior of chewing non-food items begin? While it’s often thought of a modern habit, there is evidence that chewing gum use dates back thousands of years, and across many cultures. Ancient Europeans, Greeks, Aztecs, Mayans, and American Indians all had their own versions of chewing gum. These primordial gums were often made of tree barks, saps, and resins. Modern gum burst onto the scene in the 1860s as “chicle” in Mexico, and a hundred years later scientists figured out how to make synthetic gum bases, which were essentially forms of plastic. And the gum available in today’s supermarket checkout line is nothing more than artificially sweetened and flavored rubber. Tastes better than it sounds, huh?

Given its extensive historical use, chewing gum is hardly a new phenomenon—and it’s possible that ancient chewers may have been even more aware of gum’s health benefits than we are.  The first and most obvious benefit of chewing gum is its effect on oral health—which is often a good indicator of overall physical health. Chewing gum can keep your mouth kissably clean and healthy because it stimulates the production and release of saliva, which can be thought of as the body’s personal on-call dentist. Saliva breaks down and washes away food particles, acids, and harmful bacteria that can cause cavities, tooth and enamel decay, and bad breath.

Chewing gum can also help with digestion. The physical act of chewing triggers the secretion of stomach acids that help break down food into nutrients, leading to easier and more complete digestion. Because of this, chewing gum is also a helpful treatment of GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease, aka acid reflux), a common condition among Americans in which stomach acids travel up from the stomach into the throat area during digestion, causing pain, burning and discomfort. A study published in the Journal of Dental Research in 2005 found that chewing sugarless gum for 30 minutes following a meal can reduce acid reflux. This may be due to an increase in the swallowing rate as well as saliva flow down into the stomach, which may help wash away and neutralize harmful stomach acids.

Beyond the bountiful and bubbly benefits that bits of gum bring to the body, even more surprising are the effects it may have on the brain. A study published in the research journal Appetite in 2011 found that chewing gum increased performance on a variety of cognitive tasks for about 15-20 minutes after chewing. In addition to boosting memory and logic skills, any mild exercise such as chewing gum has been shown to increase alertness, heart rate and even elevate mood.

But OK, to be fair to grandmas everywhere, there are a few potential adverse effects to the habit: Chewing gum can lead to gas, bloating and indigestion, as well as the painful jaw condition known as TMJ. It also often contains controversial artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose that may cause health problems—so check the labels carefully.

As for the urban myth that swallowed gum stays in your system for seven years—this probably originated as a childhood scare tactic, and like most other urban myths this one is not true.

“Though your stomach can’t break down a piece of gum the same way it breaks down other food, your digestive system can move it along through normal intestinal activity,” states the doctor-reviewed website kidshealth.org.

Overall though, the simple act of chewing sugarless gum a couple of times a day, especially after meals, is sure to benefit both the body and mind.

Contributor at Good Times |

Andrew has been writing for most of his life and has been published in multiple forms. He has a B.S. in Psychology from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and an M.S. in Nutritional Science from California State University at Chico. His interests, journalistic and otherwise, are diverse. But like pretty much everyone else he loves music and sports as well as food, water, and shelter. His favorite animal is the Pacific green sea turtle and his favorite board game is Stratego. He is also prone to over-thinking and is glad that this paragraph will soon be over so that he can stop trying to describe himself within it.

To Top