Following the practices of ancient Greeks, Mayans, Native Americans and others in chewing natural fibers, modern chewing gum was first patented in the 1800’s and has graced store shelves ever since. The American chewing gum market is a $5 billion industry and is only expected to grow. With the consistent and high intake of chewing gum in many people’s diets, some are curious about the positive and negative effects on the digestive tract.
Beneficial effects in the digestive tract
Improves oral health
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol used in many chewing gums that reduces cavity formation by reducing the total count of bacteria in saliva, especially the cavity-promoting bacteria Streptococcus mutans, S. mutans.
Another study found xylitol improved bad breath or halitosis by helping to decrease β-glucosidases, salivary enzymes responsible for aromatic release.
Improves saliva production
Gum requires increased chewing action which helps to stimulate saliva production. This is a helpful tool to alleviate discomfort for those with medication or disease-induced dry mouth.
Improved saliva production also helps to wash away food material from teeth, reducing the material available for bacterial fermentation which also reduces cavity formation.
Enhances GI motility & promotes GI surgery recovery
Those who receive intestinal surgery are at an increased risk for ileus, an inability for the intestines to contract normally which may lead to a potentially life-threatening intestinal blockage. A meta-analysis of studies found that chewing gum increases intestinal transit or motility and is a useful tool to prevent colorectal surgery complications and may even reduce hospital stay length. One randomized, controlled study conducted years later supports this conclusion. It found that colon and rectum resection patients who chewed gum along with their post-surgery treatment plan were hungrier sooner, and passed gas and their first bowel movement significantly faster than those not chewing gum.
Research suggests that chewing gum may even promote bowel function earlier in women post-caesarean section.
May help to decrease anxiety and stress-induced GI symptoms
The gut-brain axis is the connection between the digestive tract and the brain and explains the relationship between emotional triggers such as stress and anxiety and digestive discomfort. Mastication, or chewing, is increased in those who chew gum. The action of chewing is considered a helpful stress-coping mechanism and may also contribute to reduced feelings of stress-induced digestive symptoms.
Chewing gum concerns
May promote bloating
Some gums contain sugar alcohols such as xylitol, erythritol, or sorbitol which are all classified as FODMAPs. Chewing multiple pieces of gum a day could contribute to diarrhea, bloating and digestive distress, especially for those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
May promote headaches
Those who are prone to headaches or migraines may need to limit chewing gum as the chewing or mastication action may be a trigger for headache onset.
May lead to intestinal blockages
Children who chew large amounts of gum and swallow it may be at an increased risk for intestinal blockage, especially when the gum clings to food remnants and creates a bezoar, a trapped undigested mass in the intestines. This only occurs rarely in children, however.
Some gums contain concerning ingredients such as artificial sweeteners, preservatives like BHT, softeners, and vinyl acetate in the gum bases. Ideally choose a gum brand with simple and declared ingredients that contains xylitol for cavity protection rather than added sugars that may promote cavities.
Added sugars promote cavities
Chewing gums that contain added sugars increase the potential for cavity development by increasing the food substrate in the mouth that cavity-promoting bacteria like to consume. High sugar intake, whether in chewing gum or the general diet, is the single greatest risk factor for cavity development.
Although it is a common myth that gum will remain in the digestive tract indefinitely, chewing gum is a relatively inert product and if small amounts are swallowed, it has been shown to be excreted in the amount of time comparable to foods, about 40 hours or less.
Enjoy gum regularly, but be mindful of ingredients, to experience digestive benefits.