We can all agree: stress is an epidemic in today’s society. We’re stressed at work. We’re stressed at home. We’re stressed in general. We consider our fast-paced, hyper-connected way of life ‘normal,’ and, as a result, see stress as inevitable and unavoidable. Anything—your child’s outburst, an interaction on Facebook, someone cutting you off in traffic—can trigger a stress response. But when extremely high levels of stress continue for long periods of time, it can (and will) cause adverse health effects.
One of the places that the effects of stress often show up is in the mouth. April is Stress Awareness Month, and we’re going to take a look at how stress can affect your oral health.
Teeth Grinding: Stress has long been shown to contribute to bruxism or the clenching and grinding of teeth. This repeated grinding can cause damage to the surface of the teeth and the enamel. It can also cause teeth to crack and break, leading to the need for crowns and root canals. Clenching and grinding often occurs during sleep, so in some cases, a patient may not even be aware that they are doing it.
Bruxism also contributes to problems with the temporomandibular joints (TMJ), the joints located in front of your ear where the skull and lower jaw meet that allow you to make the movements required for speaking and eating. Temporomandibular disorder (TMD) can cause many problems such as headaches, pain, and tenderness, swelling, or problems with jaw function.
Dentists sometimes recommend a night guard to protect your teeth while you sleep. Talk to your dentist about other tools and techniques that can help reduce grinding and prevent damage.
Dry mouth: For some people, anxiety or stress can decrease the amount of saliva being produced. With less saliva flowing through the mouth, it can feel dry, sticky, and not as clean as usual. Also, many medications, such as those prescribed to help treat anxiety disorders and depression, list dry mouth as one of the side effects.
When there isn’t enough saliva in the mouth, there is a higher risk of common dental complications. Saliva is the body’s natural way of protecting teeth, washing away food and bacteria, and neutralizing acids in the mouth. Without enough saliva, it can be harder to chew and swallow food, and the risk for cavities, gum disease, and infection is greater. In fact, dry mouth can cause a lot of cavities in a short period of time.
If you’re experiencing decreased saliva flow, staying hydrated throughout the day can help your teeth stay strong. Your dentist can also recommend oral moisturizers or saliva substitutes.
Sores in the Mouth: Stress can contribute to sores in or around the mouth, such as canker sores, cold sores, and fever blisters. These sores usually heal on their own in a week or two, but they can be irritating and painful. There are over-the-counter medications to treat these, and in some cases, your dentist can suggest prescription treatment options and prescribe medication, including pills or a topical treatment or rinse. The best way to prevent these sores from showing up is to reduce your overall stress level.
Poor oral health routine and diet: When you’re stressed, sometimes self-care can be put on the back burner. If you find yourself indulging in unhealthy foods or neglecting your oral health regimen when you’re stressed, you may be increasing your risk of gum disease, cavities, and tooth decay.
So, what is something you can do every day to help keep your stress levels under control?
Exercise can help. I like to download my favorite music and go for a bike ride or try a long walk.
Different breathing techniques can help to reduce stress, too, and they are a simple way to relax at any time wherever you happen to be. Here are a few phone apps that can help you take time to relax and reduce stress throughout your day.
Breathe2Relax: This app teaches you how to breathe from your belly, a technique that has been taught for centuries as a way of helping people relax. This is a free app that’s available for Android or iOS devices.
Breathing Zone: Featuring a clinically proven therapeutic breathing exercise, this app comes with easy-to-follow voice instructions and calming sounds that can help reduce stress in just a few minutes. The breathing exercise also helps lower your heart rate and blood pressure. Breathing Zone is available for purchase on both Android and iOS devices.
Whether you want to relax while awake or get a better night’s sleep, this app features more than fifty soothing sounds such as the ocean, birds, and rain. This app is available for Android and iOS devices and is free with the option to upgrade to a premium version.