The Surprising Way Chewing Sugar-Free Gum Could Protect Unborn Babies

Chewing sugar-free gum can prevent cavities, bad breath, and other oral health problems, according to the Oral Health Foundation. This habit increases saliva production, which may help balance the pH of your mouth and strengthen the tooth enamel. In the long run, it can reduce plaque buildup and lower your risk of tooth decay, reports the American Dental Association (ADA). To reap the maximum benefits, chew sugar-free gum for 20 minutes after each meal.

ADA also says that chewing sugarless gum can help you recover faster from surgical interventions, relieve dry mouth, and protect against cavities. This simple practice increases salivary flow rate by 10 to 12 times, reducing the strong acids that may cause tooth erosion. Moreover, xylitol and other ingredients in sugar-free gum fight oral bacteria and support dental health. What's even more surprising is that chewing gum may help prevent early birth and protect unborn babies, according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

More than 10% of babies were born preterm (before 37 weeks of pregnancy) in 2020, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As the Cleveland Clinic notes, these children are more likely to experience sleep apnea, blood infections, brain hemorrhage, cardiovascular problems, and cerebral palsy. But how is it that sugar-free gum can reduce the risk of preterm birth, and thus related health problems? 

Xylitol, a sugar alcohol in chewing gum, may prevent preterm birth

The 9,670 women in Malawi who participated in the 2022 American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology study were given information to prevent preterm birth, as well as information about oral care. The women were then divided into two groups, one chewed xylitol gum one to two times per day for 10 minutes at a time throughout their pregnancies, while the other group did not. By the end of the study, it was found that 16.5% of the women in the education-only group gave birth early, whereas only 12.6% of the women in the gum-chewing/education group had preterm births (via U.S. News & World Report). This group also experienced improvements in oral health, along with a reduction in periodontitis, or gum infection.

Researchers attribute these potential benefits to xylitol, a sugar alcohol in chewing gum. "Xylitol may alter the oral microbiome, leading to healthier gums, less systemic inflammation, and therefore less preterm birth," obstetrician-gynecologist Blair Wylie told U.S. News & World Report. Scientists are now planning to conduct further research in other countries.  

These findings make sense considering the relationship between pregnancy and oral health. The bad bacteria in your mouth can enter the bloodstream and travel to the uterus, increasing the release of prostaglandins, warns the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). These hormone-like chemicals may cause uterine contractions and induce labor, leading to premature birth. There's also a risk of transmitting oral bacteria to your newborn child, says the AAP. Xylitol can reduce these pathogens and counteract their harmful effects, which may improve pregnancy outcomes.