I’ve been outed.
One of my students (I’m an elementary school teacher) called me out on my addiction when he noticed that my pack of gum—freshly opened that morning—was totally empty by afternoon recess.
“Didn’t you just open that pack?”
Though I tried to deflect the question with my response, as I looked down at my newly emptied pack of Orbit, that nagging thought in the back of my mind began to resurface—is my pack-a-day gum habit really bizarre?
I often go through a piece every five minutes, swapping a flavorless one for a soft, fresh piece. But that’s just because I like the sweet, minty taste and texture of a fresh piece. Plus, it helps me focus and relieves stress.
Suddenly I felt like an addict going through her list of excuses. I asked an expert for her professional opinion.
“I wouldn’t call it an addiction,” says Sue Richardson, a therapist based in San Diego. “It sounds more like a habit, and many habits are really hard to break.”
A Made-Up Addiction?
The good news (for me) is that I’m not alone. Americans spend about $1.3 billion year on chewing gum, according to Gumbusters North America. As I started researching the topic and talking about it with friends, I ran across gum addiction message boards and fellow chewers that made my habit pale in comparison.
“I chew at least two packs a day,” says Aarzo Rios, twenty-nine. “Even when my jaw hurts. I just can’t stand the way my mouth tastes without it. I crave it more than coffee.”
Most research shows that it’s unlikely anyone would become physically addicted to sugar-free gum. That said, we develop the habit of having something in our mouths and come to depend on it (like I do) for critical thinking or stress relief or whatever. Although if your gum of choice is not sugar-free, you could be dealing with an actual addiction. Growing evidence shows that sugar has seriously addictive properties—the more we consume, the more we want.
Like many habits, my chewing progressed slowly. I started with a piece or two after a meal, then added some more to my daily routine when I was bored or needed to concentrate, and before I knew it, I was popping one piece after another.
“At this point, my body needs gum all the time for me to feel comfortable,” says Kelly Lim, thirty, who also chews about a pack a day. “Otherwise, it’s all I can think about.”
Using something to calm our nerves is just fine and healthy—as long as it’s not hurting us in other ways.
Too Much of a Good Thing
If chewers experience either of the following issues, then it’s a definite sign to cut back.
Artificial Sweetener Overdose: The ingredient that sweetens most sugar-free gum—sorbitol—has been linked to some serious gastrointestinal problems. Sorbitol is also used as a laxative, but there’s just a tiny amount in gum, so most of us don’t experience any issues. But for those of us chewing through a pack or four a day, we’re ingesting large amounts that can quickly add up to too much. Here’s the breakdown: If we’re chewing anything above 20 grams (fifteen pieces) of sugar-free daily, we’re risking abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea. Already experiencing these regularly? Gum could be the culprit, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal.
Jaw Issues: Chewing too vigorously or too often could leave us with jaw problems, according to oral surgeons at the University of Texas’s Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Constant gum between the teeth can tire our jaws, leading to muscle fatigue, spasms, and pain. Some cases have even led to temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMJ, a jaw-based syndrome that causes chronic pain in the head and neck, making it painful to open and close the mouth. The study also found that the more stressed we are, the harder we chew on our gum—putting more stress on our jaws. Researchers advised finding other ways to deal with stress, like exercise or meditation.
The Benefits of Gum-Chewing
For all you fellow chain chewers out there (and to justify my habit), I searched out some positive effects of chewing gum. Guess what? I discovered that we’re doing our minds, mouths, and bodies some good by popping in those minty-fresh pieces. Here’s why:
It shows love to our pearly whites.
(Only if it’s sugar-free, of course.) Because chomping increases saliva, it helps wash away debris that can lead to plaque, and helps us avoid putting cavity-causing sugar in our mouths. Not feeling any stomach pain? The sugar-free sticks are probably doing our mouths more good than harm thanks to their tooth-friendly properties.
It reduces stress.
As long as we’re not experiencing any jaw pain, chewing gum while performing stressful work and multi-tasking truly does help us keep anxiety under control, says new research from the Brain Sciences Institute in Australia.
It can put our sweet tooth in check.
Chewing gum after a meal can satisfy sweet cravings, says a study in the journal Appetite. It definitely doesn’t keep me away from the chocolate cake every time, but I do think this can work for minor dessert yearnings.
Calling It Quits
If you’re just not comfortable with your level of addiction to the minty stuff, there are some tips for making scaling back your daily gum count.
If you want to stop, you’ve got to retrain your sweet tooth. This means trimming sugar in whatever areas we can (processed foods, like salad dressings, and super-sugary goods, like store-bought muffins and sodas) to cut those sweet cravings. Limit your pieces-per-day to a specific number, count them out, and put the rest of the gum out of reach each morning. Force yourself to pop a new one only every half hour, then forty-five minutes, and so on, stretching the time further and further in between.
“Wean yourself slowly,” Rios cautions. “It’s worked for me.”
Looks like I’ve been lucky with no jaw problems or digestive problems … yet. So I’m not going to get down on myself too much about my affinity for Sweet Mint. Hey, it’s a whole lot better than a pack of cigarettes, right?
Now hold on while I switch to a fresh piece.