Stress and Your Teeth
Stress, and its impact on oral and whole body health.
Stress in the broader sense
Life these days is lived at a much higher pace than in the past, we live in a world of constant sounds and images that vie for our attention, as well as so many options of things to do and of course things that need to be done.
Often this can lead to a variety of daily stressors and it isn't any surprise that as our lives become busier, so the numbers of stress related disease and incidents continue to rise.
Add to that our own immediate life stressors that impact emotionally, and environmental stressors such as air toxins or pollutants, and we can begin to see the reasons why the western world is so unhealthy.
We can add still further to this with the enforced posture of certain trades that impact physically on back and neck, all of which can create a stress response in the body.
To this already full bucket we can then add diet, sugar and a whole glut of food based misinformation as different products vie for our business.
The dental impact of stress
The impact on our teeth, gums and jaw of the collective experience of 2023 living is significant and unless we keep a close eye on what happening this area can be neglected leading to poor oral health routines and/or choices.
More recent studies show how the chemical responses within the body are connected, such as the autonomic nervous system and its relationship with both brain function and gut bacteria to name two key areas.
We also now know that stress at a more serious level will ultimately alter the quality of our blood plasma and flow and so, the performance of all our major organs.
The teeth and jawline are not immune to this chemical groundswell and are radically affected by the bodies shifting chemical composition.
In the following sections we delve into how this affects us dentally, what we can do about it, as well as some tell-tale signs that things may need more immediate attention.
Stress effect on the teeth and jaw
When we perceive a stressful situation, the adrenal glands stimulate cortisol and adrenaline to begin the bodies fight or flight mechanism.
These chemicals are vital to sustain other essential body needs during times of extra alertness, and are pivotal to our survival, however the body’s continued need for these chemicals such as in an ongoing emotional state will begin to shift the required chemical balance towards an unhealthy system flood.
This will impact our ability to focus, and tend us more towards feelings of doubt and depression.
In more serious cases the chemical imbalance can create an ongoing fight or flight response and this can have significant impact on whole body and ultimately organ health.
Along this journey the teeth and facial bones begin to play a more and more active part and represent in some well-known and some less known ways.
Here is a list of the more likely effects of stress on our dental health.
Gum disease (periodontitis)
This is a much researched subject and it now seems fairly conclusive that our negative emotions speed up periodontal decline.
Some of this may stem from the simple causal relationship between self-neglect and stress, with people who are stressed being less likely to practise good oral hygiene and attend dental visits.
Because of the impact stress can have our immune system which then directly affects gum health, it is in fact even more important to prioritise oral health in those times of emotional difficulty.
Once the immune system loses stability our gums can become severely inflamed and can loosen the tooth roots leading to bone damage within the gum and ultimately the loss of teeth.
If gum disease is left untreated it can not only damage tooth and jaw but can also be the gateway to colds and flu based symptoms. In fact in some severe cases, what started as gum disease can substantially impact our major organs leading to life threatening illness such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Gum disease is not just gum disease.
The reasons our emotional state can be linked to tooth decay is due to the bodies stress response.
The bodies natural reaction to feelings of stress is to flush harmful minerals out of the body. Unfortunately during this process some of the protective minerals we need are also lost, lessening our defence and creating a better chance of bacterial build-up and cavities.
This is not a response we can easily control and it is often exacerbated by terrible diet choices in times of stress, such as comfort foods, sweet ‘treats’ and so on.
Many of these treats have the highest sugar content per gram of any foods and also contain extremely harmful levels of saturated fat, and the ‘largely unknown in the UK’, even more damaging trans fats (look these up).
At these times we also turn more towards other chemical modes of release such as alcohol, drugs, caffeine or nicotine, all of which again lower the resistance to immune response.
These coping methods may feel good in the short term, or indeed the long term but chemically they act against us in some very damaging ways such as increasing toxicity and inflammation, which in turn creates more stress in the body.
Bruxism is the dental name for tooth grinding, and this usually begins with something many of us do, clenching our jaw.
The jaw is the strongest bone in the body and historically was used for the strongest eating tasks, it's natural state therefore is one of strength and given any excuse it will tense.
This is a natural and frequent occurrence while sleeping but if it also happens when awake it can swiftly turn into a formed habit which is no good for the jaw, the teeth and indeed the rest of the body.
Common signs of bruxism include sore jaws or tender teeth around the jaw, a noticeable earache, greater sensitivity in the area, headaches, enamel erosion, and issues with opening and closing the jaw.
Many of these can begin as minor hinderances but left unchecked may cause loosening of the surrounding teeth and thus invite spaces for bacterial growth or indeed the teeth may become so unsteady that they fall out or need to be surgically removed.
Stress is not the single cause of tooth grinding, there are also sometimes genetic factors in play, so if you feel completely calm but experience any of the above symptoms or if anything just feel right, we advise a visit to your dentist as soon as you can.
Treatment for bruxism often involves simple repeated jaw exercises or occasionally a mouthguard will be prescribed.
The Temporomandibular Joint sits at the opening point of the jaw and is responsible for a range of issues called TMJ disorder or sometimes TMD. This is the umbrella title for issues within the joints of the gums.
These issues can lead to severe pain, jawbone damage, oral health problems and sometimes lockjaw, standard treatments again involve jaw massaging and stress relieving measures and many videos are available online that approach this subject.
That said if your jaw starts to click or seize, the first port of call should always be your dentist to identify the cause of your TMJ, it is often just the natural passage of time that causes this but on rare occasions it can be the sign of a more serious underlying problem and it is always wise to get these things checked sooner rather than later.
Stress and oral health, a vicious cycle
So, we can accurately establish stress as a main cause of worsening dental issues. The dental issues themselves then become one of the stress points thus worsening the overall effect on our health.
Because of this potential hand over hand cycle, it is pivotal to address your stress sources before they begin to lead your life, and your oral health.
Issues with the teeth, jaw or gumline are very seldom static so the absolute earliest you can address any of these issues the better.
When stress is playing a major factor in your daily life, it is very important to address all sides of the stress equation, seeing your dentist, your doctor and where possible a psychotherapist or mindfulness counsellor are all healthful approaches to minimising the overall stress build-up, and any of these has the accumulative effect of aiding the others.
Mentally, it is much better to know your teeth are ok than to think they are, and while a visit to the dentist may provide greater peace of mind, you also get any issues dealt with as fast as possible so preventing further deterioration.
The Stress Response and dental health
When we are concerned or worried, the ‘stress response’ is triggered and the fight or flight defensive mechanisms get to work to protect us from the immediate danger that is perceived.
Some of the stress response changes include:
Activation of the nervous system
Muscles tighten to resist attack
The Immune system is put on hold as those chemical resources are readied for emergency action
Saliva production lessens as these resources are directed towards suppression of the digestive process
These are just a few of the main actions that all happen within the body as a response to difficult situations, and the greater the perceived threat, the more sudden and dramatic the chemical swing.
When it comes to teeth and jaw specifically, stress affects these is some very noticeable ways, among them are:
Unexpected pain in not just the teeth and jaw but any connected areas, which may include the ears, sinus cavity and other head and neck areas.
Some of these pains are due to tightness which is in turn due to tension, as well as this the now over stimulated nervous system sends signals to nerve endings throughout the body including the mouth and teeth which can also cause pain without a clear physical foundation. This pain can then radiate outwards to the jaw, ears and sinus area.
So, again if feeling pains in these areas, whether you can trace them back to an origin or not, it is important to see your dentist for an evaluation.
Stress Response Hyperstimulation
In times of prolonged severe stress, the body’s fight or flight response can be placed in constant readiness to resist attack, this can mean a prolonged chemical imbalance which can severely impact your mental and physical health.
In terms of dental impact this can trigger all the previous symptoms mentioned such as sinus and jaw pain, teeth grinding and and so on, but in more pronounced ways.
One of the key hormones to mediate stress response, cortisol, is also likely to elevate, and this has been shown to create and worsen gingivitis, the gateway to more significant dental disease.
This radical chemical change can also affect our immune suppressant balance opening the doorway to bacteria and infection.
It is highly important to take steps to rebalance the imbalance and we advise speaking to your doctor or a qualified psychological practitioner should you feel that may be experiencing this, as well as a visit to your dentist to ensure that its impact hasn’t yet taken any toll on your underlying dental health.
There are many extremely useful articles surrounding the issues of stress in general, and how to approach varying levels of anxiety.
A simple google search will reveal multiple articles and a little research may reveal one that specifically speaks to your circumstances.
If you are looking for a place to start, then mindfulness, sleep health, diet awareness and deep relaxation techniques can be a fantastic springboard.
Visible symptoms of stress on oral health
Canker sores are collections of small white or grey spots with red borders to them. If you frequently suffer from this type mouth sore or ulcer, there can be a number of reasons.
Often canker sores develop due to immune system imbalance while the body is trying to fight something off, one of the main route causes for this type of chemical resistance is stress.
Lesser known reasons may be a deficiency in vitamin B or even a sensitivity to your toothpaste!
When you have canker sores, the best approach is to not eat anything too spicy or acidic, such as tomato or citrus fruits.
Some over the counter medications can also be beneficial to numb the irritation though advice should be sought with your dentist or doctor on the correct product.
Biting your nails is a known stress symptom and may seem fairly harmless in itself but please remember that the nails often contain germs and may even carry infections.
Once transferred to the mouth these are then ingested and can cause serious illnesses.
You can also transfer warts from your fingers to your mouth.
Burning mouth syndrome
Stress can also a primary cause of Burning Mouth Syndrome, this is an uncomfortable disease that creates pain in your teeth and gums causing inflammation and damage.
The main symptom is a burning or scalding pain in the mouth, sometimes accompanied by numbness.
Other possible symptoms are an altered taste sensation or dryness of the mouth. The pain may also be felt on the lips, as well as the roof of the mouth.
Ordinarily this condition affects women over 60 but has also been known to affect those of younger age and sometimes men.
Smoking and drinking alcohol are known to worsen the condition.
Try stress relieving practices such as yoga and mindfulness as these have been shown to lessen symptoms.
Frequently sipping cold drinks or sucking on ice can also provide relief.
Once again, the best approach is to avoid certain things such as spicy foods, alcohol and alcohol based mouthwash, and the more acidic fruits and foods.
Also known as fever blisters, cold sores are a direct result of the herpes simplex virus.
These fluid filled sores often congregate around the lip area, or just under the nose or chin. Again stress can stimulate a flare up leading to further stress and concern.
Much like canker sores, cold sores often clear up fairly quickly but they can be highly contagious.
There are over the counter solutions for them and a doctor’s visit may provide a suitable anti-viral medication but again not all products will suit every case. Consult with the doctor or dentist for their recommendations before purchasing.
A final word
Stress is such a broad and wide ranging topic involving many different aspects of the bodies responses. From a dental perspective the advice is quite clear that in difficult times it is especially important to pay close attention to what your teeth and gums are doing.
So much of our focus can be directed towards other things and it is so easy to put off dentists visits or skip a brushing session here or there but this occasional neglect can mount up to a big underlying problem, and in times of stress, the last thing you need is more stress.