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The minty sweet flavor of chewing gum is a low calorie way to replace desserts, combat cravings, or deal with stress. These days “healthy” chewing gums are even available in health food stores, either sugar-free or with some beneficial ingredients. Of course, simply because something is calorie-free or sugar-free doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
As with just about everything, there are pros and cons to chewing gum. (Sorry to disappoint if you were hoping for a simple, straightforward answer!) As with most questions regarding health, it’s at least possible to take a look at the research and make an informed (sane) decision.
Let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks, shall we?
The Proven Benefits of Chewing Gum
Chewing gum has a number of benefits in its favor! Here are a few.
There’s no doubt chewing gum can take the edge off the nerves, and this is confirmed in clinical studies. In a small study of 50 young adult volunteers, those who chewed gum twice a day for two weeks rated their anxiety as significantly lower than those who did not. Another study found that not only does chewing gum reduce anxiety but it also reduces cortisol levels.
Sadly, the anxiety-reducing benefits don’t last, as the study showed no significant difference in anxiety after 4 weeks. At best, data on the effects of chewing gum on stress levels appear to be mixed.
Increases Serotonin in the Brain
Because chewing gum reduces stress, it has also been shown that it can increase serotonin, the “happy” neurotransmitter. Increased serotonin in turn soothes the nerves that conduct pain. So, yes, chewing gum could actually work as a pain reducer!
Increases Cognitive Performance
The same studies that found chewing gum reduces anxiety also found gum chewers experience less mental fatigue. Scientists are still investigating the connection. It might be because chewing increases oxygenated blood in the brain, or because chewing signals the release of more insulin (because it anticipates food), which in turn allows the brain to absorb more glucose.
Activates the Vagus Nerve
I write about the vagus nerve in detail here, but in brief, poor vagus nerve activation is one of the causes of all modern diseases.
The vagus nerve wanders between the brain and several important organs, such as the heart and the digestive system. It controls gut movement and secretion of digestive juice, among other things. It is believed to be one of the ways that gut health and gut bacteria affect the brain. This might explain the effects of gum chewing on mood. Chewing in general can stimulate the vagus nerve (as this Self-Hacked post explains).
By activating the vagus nerve, gum chewing can also increase gut movement and secretion of digestive enzymes. One study suggested that chewing gum could even help new mothers restore bowel functions after C-sections.
Improves Dental Health
Studies suggest that sugar-free gum use may reduce the risks of dental decay. The evidence is still unclear for other dental health benefits (and the prolonged exposure to acidic ingredients in some gums may actually increase the risks).
It may be that chewing gum simply stimulates extra saliva production and helps the mouth clean itself. Gum containing erythritol or xylitol may also kill bad oral bacteria and increase the good ones.
Chewing Gum: The Flip Side
Ready to go pick up a pack of gum? Not so fast! There are downsides to consider.
Not Effective for Weight Loss (Bummer!)
While it seems like keeping the mouth busy with something low calorie would fight cravings and overeating, chewing gum had no significant effect on weight loss in a randomized control trial involving overweight and obese adults. Chewing gum somewhat reduced self-reported hunger, but overall had no effect on calorie consumption.
Contains (Potentially) Toxic Ingredients
There are many questionable ingredients in chewing gums (including the organic ones you find in health food stores!). Here are a few common ones:
- Gum base, a proprietary mix of 46 different chemicals that the FDA allows under the name “gum base.” These substances could be natural plant resins, beeswax, or petroleum-based chemicals.
- Artificial antioxidants such as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). BHT is linked to cancer risks, asthma, and behavioral issues in children.
- Fillers such as talc and cornstarch (which could be genetically modified)
- Titanium dioxide to maintain the vibrant white color
- Artificial food colors including FD&C color and caramel color
- And of course, artificial sweeteners like aspartame
Artificial sweeteners like aspartame and acesulfame K are necessary to make gum remain sweet for more than a few minutes. Even an artificial sweet taste can trigger the body to release insulin, which can lower blood sugar and worsen insulin resistance. In addition, artificial sweeteners are generally toxic to good gut bacteria.
“Tricks” the Digestive System
As mentioned, chewing gets the digestive system started by activating the vagus nerve. The gut then secretes enzymes and starts to move. This can worsen some digestive problems like stomach ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome … a pretty uncomfortable downside.
Leads to Swallowing Excess Air
Gassy? Gum chewing can lead to swallowing more air, which can cause abdominal pain and bloating.
Healthy circadian rhythm and quality sleep are very important for health, and one of the ways our bodies distinguish day from nighttime is eating. Studies have shown that gum chewing increases alertness, which is a good thing during the day but not at night. So you might want to have that piece of gum in the morning!
Causes Jaw Problems
Gum chewing might feel good, but our jaws aren’t made to chew continuously for hours. Excessive chewing can lead to tight jaw muscles, and jaw muscle imbalances if one has the habit of chewing only on one side. This can lead to temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ) and tension headaches.
80 – 90% of chewing gum on the market is made of plastic and not biodegradable, which can present major problems for the environment. In fact chewing gum is so artificial that insects won’t eat it (and no human should either), but fish and birds may eat it and possibly choke.
So … What to Do Instead?
Although chewing gum has some health benefits, ultimately everything about chewing gum is artificial. Typical chewing gums are made of several harmful artificial ingredients, and the chewing experience itself can trigger negative responses in the body.
In short, the downsides that come with chewing gum really outweigh the benefits. And the benefits can be gained more effectively in other ways.
Try These Instead:
- The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can help mitigate stress and lower anxiety.
- Bright light exposure (i.e., the sun) and exercise can improve serotonin levels, which improves mood and reduces anxiety.
- Eating slowly and chewing foods thoroughly can provide the beneficial effects of vagus nerve activation without the negative effects of chewing gum.
- Deep breathing and meditation can help increase blood flow to the brain and thus improve cognitive performance.
- Improved vagus nerve activity can come from singing, prayers, and other forms of calm meditation.
- Improved oral health can be achieved by methods that support good oral bacteria flora, such as oil pulling, homemade remineralizing toothpaste, herbal mouthwash, and supporting dental health nutritionally.
Do you chew gum? Have you experienced any of these benefits or downsides? Please weigh in below!
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- Johnson, A. J., Jenks, R., Miles, C., Albert, M., & Cox, M. (2011). Chewing gum moderates multi-task induced shifts in stress, mood, and alertness. A re-examination. Appetite, 56(2), 408-411.
- Kamiya, K., Fumoto, M., Kikuchi, H., Sekiyama, T., Mohri-Lkuzawa, Y., Umino, M., et al. (2010). Prolonged gum chewing evokes activation of the ventral part of prefrontal cortex and suppression of nociceptive responses: Involvement of the serotonergic system. Journal of Medical and Dental Sciences, 57(1), 35-43.
- Mohri, Y., Fumoto, M., Sato-Suzuki, I., Umino, M., & Arita, H. (2005). Prolonged rhythmic gum chewing suppresses nociceptive response via serotonergic descending inhibitory pathway in humans. Pain, 118(1-2), 35-42.
- National Research Council (US) Committee on Diet and Health. Washington (DC). (1989). Diet and health: Implications for reducing chronic disease risk. 22
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- Shikany, J. M., Thomas, A. S., McCubrey, R. O., Beasley, T. M., & Allison, D. B. (2012). Randomized controlled trial of chewing gum for weight loss. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 20(3), 547-552.
- Swoboda, C., & Temple, J. L. (2013). Acute and chronic effects of gum chewing on food reinforcement and energy intake. Eating Behaviors, 14(2), 149-156.
- Toors, F. A. (1992). Chewing gum and dental health. literature review. [Chewing-gum et sante dentaire. Revue de litterature] Revue Belge De Medecine Dentaire, 47(3), 67-92.