Our bodies are designed to react specific ways when under stress for a short time, but they are not as well-equipped to cope with stress for extended periods of time. When our bodies are under constant, long-term pressure, we tend to start exhibiting physical responses that are detrimental to our health.
One of the areas that can be affected is our oral health, so it’s critical to pay attention to this area during times of increased stress. Below are five ways that stress can affect your oral health and techniques that you can use to combat those potentially harmful outcomes.
Research shows that when you’re stressed out, your body has a difficult time producing the disease-fighting immune cells to keep you healthy against harmful bacteria. These immune cells not only ward off the common cold, but they help keep your gums clean and healthy.
If you’re stressed out a lot but don’t practice good oral hygiene, gum disease can start setting in, which will cause your gums to bleed and become inflamed. They may also shift away from your teeth, creating an open invitation for bacteria to set up shop deep within your gums and bloom into serious infections.
If you’re anything like me (and most other people, I might add), you’ve probably come home from a particularly stressful day at work and headed straight for the pantry or fridge. All of your health goals go out the window as you scour your reserves for those foods that are guaranteed to make you feel better. Celery? No way! Cheese cubes? Are you crazy? Nuts and a swig of water? No go. You just know that the only thing that will make you feel better is a soda, a bag of salty chips and that ooey-gooey, chocolate coated, caramel infused candy bar that you have been saving in the back of the pantry for just this kind of moment.
When we’re stressed, we usually take shortcuts to make ourselves feel better, but this behavior is often at the expense of our oral hygiene. The only way to combat this behavior is to recognize it and consciously stop yourself from participating in it. When you’re in a funk, try to eat healthy foods, drink plenty of water, and brush and floss. Don’t let your oral hygiene habits go the way of the earth just because you’re having a rough go of it.
Canker sores aren’t always a direct result of stress, but being overly anxious or stressed can be one of the causes. As it turns out, canker sores are more common in women and can pop up due to hormone changes, food allergies, brushing habits, and trauma to the mouth—as well as elevated stress levels. Most of the time, they go away on their own, but talk with your dentist if they are frequent and severe.
Dry mouth can be an indirect result of too many stressors in your life because it is often a side effect of depression and anxiety medication. Dry mouth can be a problem because it’s uncomfortable, and it can lead to an increase in cavities. The only way to treat it is to figure out what is causing it. Your doctor or dentist may be able to help you get to the root of the problem.
Another physical consequence of stress is teeth grinding. The technical term for teeth grinding is bruxism, and it can cause a whole slew of oral problems for you. The problem is that it’s hard to know whether you grind your teeth since most instances of bruxism occur when you’re asleep.
If you notice that you are getting frequent headaches during the day, your teeth are starting to look a little more worn down than they used to, your teeth are suddenly sensitive, or your jaw is constantly sore, you might want to talk with your dentist about bruxism.
While any effort to combat stress will help, here are some ideas specific to mitigate teeth grinding:
- Wear a night guard (available from your dentist, at drug stores, or online)
- Practice stress relief techniques right before bed
- Take a warm bath as part of your nightly routine
- Practice self-awareness or mindfulness during the day
- Give your jaw a break throughout the day by only chewing on food (not pens or other hard items) and skipping chewy food altogether
These ideas can help prevent further damage to your teeth and jaw.
Ways to Combat Stress
It’s no doubt that Americans are more stressed out today than we were five or 10 years ago, but you can still take charge of your health by learning some preventative and coping strategies for the stressors in your life. Below is a list of a few ideas to help you get started.
- Exercise daily and drink plenty of water
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, or self-medicating
- Seek professional counseling as necessary
- Take deep, calming breaths in stressful situations
- Make sleep a priority – try to get at least eight hours per night
- Practice self-reflection or guided meditation – there are a lot of videos available on YouTube to help you learn how to do this effectively
- Participate in a hobby that you enjoy
- Spend some time in nature