It’s no secret that stress has a major detrimental effect on our overall health and wellbeing. Today, however, Vitality is taking a behind-the-scenes look at stress and your oral health, how it can affect you, the link between stress and mouth ulcers, the effects of stress on gum disease, and what you can do to mitigate the effects of stress on your oral health.
Is there a link between stress and oral health?
Regrettably, much as we would have liked to tell you there is no link at all, there is actually a pretty firm link between several oral health issues and your chronic stress levels. The key here is chronic stress, so don’t worry that your oral health will be impacted adversely every time you feel a shot of adrenaline hit your blood! Situational stress in small doses can actually be fairly beneficial for your body. A healthy stress response, for example, helps you feel more awake and energized in a situation where clear thinking is needed- when you are taking an important exam, participating in an action sport, getting pumped up for a critical meeting or job interview, or when you most need your wits about you in a negative situation. These short bursts of stress help you better handle important events by priming your body to think and act quickly, and will not have a long-term effect on a healthy body.
What is chronic stress?
However, our modern lives have gotten very complex and hectic, and our bodies, with a more primitive ‘fight or flight’ response still hardwired into our genetic makeup, don’t quite know how to correctly handle the micro-stresses of modern daily life. We are surrounded by beeping gadgets demanding our attention at all times of the day. Finding a work-life balance has become difficult, especially for those of us with young families, and no matter what your life situation may be downtime to unwind is often at a premium. This stress, which is what medical professionals refer to as chronic stress, results in situations where we find ourselves on ‘high alert’ almost all the time, and over time it can have an adverse effect on our bodies too.
Chronic stress is characterised by our bodies over-producing the ‘stress hormone’, cortisol. It occurs when we experience life difficulties and challenges over a long period of time without periods of relaxation and stress relief, so our bodies never get the proper chance to regain a positive base state without the impacts of stress. While this form of stress is sometimes worn as a ‘badge of honour’ among those with busy lives, the long-term effects on general health can be very detrimental. Outside of the effects of stress on our oral health, it can also contribute to depression and mental issues, weight gain, fuzzy thinking and an inability to live our lives to their fullest and best.
How are stress and oral health linked?
Our oral health exists in a delicate balance within the body, so it is unsurprising that the effects of chronic stress often begin to show in our mouths. Not only are there several oral health conditions which may manifest directly due to the effects of chronic stress, this long-term stress also has other, more insidious effects on our oral health too. When we feel strung out and unable to relax, or when we are facing periods of hectic work and life schedules, one of the first areas that suffer is our dental care. We turn to sugary foods for comfort and to replace a more healthy relaxation schedule, or we look to junk food and easy-to-grab fast foods in place of investing in a healthy diet. Getting the correct balance of minerals and vitamins to maintain tooth structure is key to good oral health, so a great diet is essential.
We may also skip regular visits to our dental practitioner as we simply can’t find the place in a busy schedule to squeeze in preventative maintenance of our dental concerns, instead only turning to the dentist when actual issues manifest. Lastly, even low-grade depression can affect our willingness to maintain our good health and invest in ourselves, leading us into problematic behaviours like skipping sleep, regular dental maintenance and other self-care which helps us stay healthy and at the top of our games.
What oral health conditions are linked to stress?
Besides the general oral health issues which can result from poor self-care, there are a few conditions directly linked to high stress levels in the body. These can include the following:
Grinding, clenching and temporomandibular joint disorders
Tooth grinding can be a very insidious and difficult-to-detect manifestation of stress on your oral health, as it is often undetectable to the sufferer themselves. You will likely rely on a loving partner or family member to tell you that they’re hearing the tell-tale grinding sounds as you sleep. Tooth grinding can be a direct manifestation of worried and stressful thinking impacting the quality of your sleep, causing you to clench your jaw and grind your teeth against each other overnight, as your mind can’t let go of the dizzying thoughts of the day. It can lead to damaged molars, cracked teeth and the shifting of fillings and other dental implants, however, and needs to be treated if detected. If you often wake with unexplained headaches or jaw pain, tooth grinding may be at the root of it.
You may also find that you are clenching your jaw during waking hours, too, often without really realising you are doing so. This, too, can be a knock-on effect of stress on your oral health. At its worst, temporomandibular joint disorders [pain in the joints of the jaw] can result.
Dry mouth issues
Stress can also be a major cause of ‘dry mouth’- not producing enough saliva to protect the teeth and sensitive mucosal membranes of the mouth. If you think on how you will often feel dried up and needing a drink just before a stressful situation like an exam, it’s easy to grasp how chronic stress can impact this delicate area of oral health. Without a healthy saliva balance in the mouth, bacteria can gain a foothold and cause issues such as gum disease and cavities.
Can stress cause gum disease?
While stress isn’t often a direct cause of gum disease, it can certainly have a very adverse effect on existing cases of unhealthy gums. Not only does poor oral hygiene allow bacterial overgrowth in gum pockets of the mouth, but the effects of chronic stress on your immune system will often make it less resilient and less able to cope with small infections which would otherwise be shrugged off. A poor immune system also results in weak connective tissues, such as those found in the gums. The result? The perfect environment for periodontal issues and gum disease to gain a stronger footing in your mouth, exacerbating the existing condition.
What about stress and mouth ulcers?
Mouth sores, including cold sores at the corners of the mouth, can certainly manifest when you are under emotional stress. Generally caused by small viral infections in the oral area- cold sores, for example, are typically the result of a flare in the herpes simplex virus, and other patches of pain in the mouth are a typical result of chronic stress adversely affecting your oral health.
How can I mitigate these effects of stress on my oral health?
While there’s no advice more frustrating than ‘stress less’, it is important to strive for a healthier balance of stress in our lives. Mindfulness and other relaxation techniques can help you gain a stronger control over the ‘flight or fight’ impulse of the body, for starters. Striving to get at least 8 hours of quality sleep each night, and staying fit and active, will also help you create better a balance in your life. Make sure you are also eating healthy, supportive foods as part of a balanced diet to best support your body and its health, too.
Lastly, it’s important to make your oral health a priority. Keep on top of regular dental hygiene tasks, and be sure to schedule preventive maintenance visits with your hygienist too.
Vitality’s trained team are always available to help answer any questions you may have about how stress is affecting your oral health, so feel free to get in touch today if you have any further questions.