For some reason, when we talk about the health impacts of stress, we tend to forget about our mouths. Our mouths are just as vulnerable to stress as the rest of our bodies. The past year has been a very stressful period in all our lives.
Stress affects your oral health in different ways: it weakens the immune system; it can prompt new, destructive habits; and it can also disrupt normal cleaning habits. So, here is yet another gentle nudge to pay attention to your stress level and do what you can to lower it.
Immune and other systems
When we’re under constant stress, elevated levels of epinephrine and cortisol can damage blood vessels and arteries, suppress the immune system, increase appetite, and increase storage of unused nutrients as fat.
It’s easy to forget that many of these systems impact your oral health:
- Bleeding gums/gum disease—A weakened immune system leaves your gums vulnerable to harmful bacteria, which can cause gum disease, causing tooth decay, and bad breath. In a nasty Catch-22, gum disease, in turn, can further weaken your body’s immune system and allow the spread of harmful bacteria.
- Pain/tooth decay—Pre-existing dental issues can worsen during times of stress because of changes in your blood supply and a weakened immune system.
- Canker sores—These painful small spots with a white or grayish base and red borders tend to crop up during times of high stress, perhaps as a sign, our body is on high alert.
- Dry mouth—Did you know that stress can lead to dry mouth? Saliva has many oral health benefits, including washing away food particles.
New, bad habits
- “Bruxism”— Grinding or clenching your teeth can be brought on by stress, and you may not even know you’re doing it.
- Smoking and drinking—These self-comforting habits can contribute to the drying of the tissues and chronic damage over time. Alcohol and smoking can induce a sensation similar to burning mouth syndrome. The condition is burning, scalding, or tingling feeling in the mouth, it can make it painful to eat and drink, and to practice proper oral care.
- Nail-biting—Another self-comforting habit, nail-biting can wear down your tooth enamel, weakening your teeth and opening them up to infection. Your hands also can introduce any number of germs to your mouth and body, so, it’s just generally a good idea to keep them out of your mouth.
Slacking off good habits
Long-term stress can make us feel scattered, depressed, and out-of-control. Some researchers have suggested that chronic stress can actually cause brain changes that can lead to anxiety, depression, addiction, and even obesity. These conditions can often cause us to drop our good habits, like daily oral hygiene routines, exercise, a healthy diet, etc.
If this is stressing you out
We don’t want this information to make you stress out about being stressed! So, here are a few easy ways you can be kind to yourself and help lower the heat level of your stress:
Any relaxation technique
You don’t have to find a nearby yoga class or study up on meditation. Right now, you can reduce your stress a notch by simply taking a few really deep breaths. Go ahead. Breath in slowly and deeply, all the way down to your belly. And then breathe out, slowly. It can be that simple. If you like, try yoga or tai chi or meditation—there are so many online and app offerings that it’s pretty easy to find something that works for you.
Any kind of movement
Again, don’t stress out about getting a certain type of workout or even how long you exercise. Simply move. Try to disengage your brain from whatever tends to occupy too much space. Stand up and stretch, walk around your home, go up and down the stairs if you have some, or walk down the block for some fresh air. Whatever you can do, do it.
Any kind of socializing
Researchers still aren’t sure why, but having the emotional support of a social network does seem to help. Even if the only contact you and your social circle can risk during the pandemic is on the phone or online, keep up those connections.
For more stress-relieving tips, read this and other LivingBetter50 articles. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself permission to take a little time each day to get grounded and find a moment of calm.
By Dr. Charles Sutera , FAGD
LivingBetter50 is a magazine for women over 50, offering an over 50 magazine free download for women with spirit!
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