Feeling stressed? It may be the reason behind your oral health problems

The toll of stress on your body is just beginning to be understood. Chronic stress has been linked to anxiety, depression, heart disease, weight gain, poor memory, and more.

Stress impacts physical and mental wellbeing, and it can have negative effects on your oral health, including infections, canker sores, dry mouth, and other problems.

How stress affects the body

According to the World Health Organization, “Stress can be defined as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives.”

Certain types of stress, such as the natural stress response, helps our body prepare for a perceived threat by releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones give you more energy by increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. They also slow nonessential functions that are not considered beneficial to the flight or fight response.

Why does this response happen? Millions of years ago ancient humans had threats like predators that required a fast response from the body for survival. Today, modern humans may not deal with the same types of threats, but dealing with heavy workloads, caring for your family, paying bills, and other day-to-day activities are still perceived as threats in the body.

Normally, once a perceived threat is gone, hormone levels return to normal and the body can return to an unstressed state. However, if someone is feeling constantly stressed these hormones cannot return to normal levels. This inability to “turn off” the hormones disrupts nearly all of the body’s functions, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The connection between stress and poor oral health

The connection between stress and poor oral health is not as studied as the connection between stress and physical and mental health. However, there are a number of known oral health problems that have been linked in high stress levels, including:

  • Increased teeth grinding (Bruxism): Stress often leads to teeth grinding or clenching. This habit can wear down tooth enamel, cause tooth sensitivity, and even lead to jaw disorders.
  • Gum disease: Chronic stress can weaken the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off infections, including gum disease. Stress may also lead to poor oral hygiene habits, which further contribute to gum problems.
  • Dry mouth: Stress can reduce saliva production, leading to dry mouth. Saliva plays a crucial role in washing away food particles and neutralizing acids in the mouth. A dry mouth increases the risk of tooth decay and gum disease.
  • Unhealthy eating habits: During stressful periods, people often turn to sugary or unhealthy comfort foods and drinks. These choices increase the risk of cavities and gum issues.
  • Neglect of oral hygiene: High-stress levels might result in neglecting oral hygiene routines like regular brushing, flossing, and dental check-ups. Poor oral hygiene directly contributes to various dental problems.
  • Canker sores: Stress is known to trigger canker sores in susceptible individuals. Canker sores are small sores inside the mouth that are typically located on the tongue, inner cheeks or lips, and roof of the mouth. 
  • Compromised immune function: Chronic stress weakens the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections, including oral infections.

Manage stress to improve your oral health

To lessen the impact of stress on oral health, it's essential to practice stress-reducing techniques such as regular exercise, meditation, deep breathing exercises, and seeking support from friends, family, or professionals. Additionally, maintaining a healthy oral hygiene routine and scheduling regular dental check-ups can help prevent or address oral health issues made worse by stress.