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How Chronic Stress Can Damage Your Mouth (& What to Do About It)

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Whether it’s movie one-liners, karaoke tunes, or kimchi, everyone enjoys a good listicle. And Fremont recently came in at the top of one, naming ours the Least Stressed City in America.

If you’re a little skeptical of our city’s outranking the 182 included in WalletHub’s survey, maybe you’re not one of those least stressed citizens of Fremont. Maybe you’re looking around at your friends and coworkers, wondering why it feels like every single person around you seems to be feeling fantastic, while you missed the boat.

Stress does have that power to make you feel isolated and overwhelmed. And chronic stress – stress that’s ongoing, day in, day out – has the power to do a number on your health, oral health included. Indeed, stress – along with diet, hygiene, smoking, alcohol use, and trauma – is one of the most common risk factors for oral health problems.

In some respects, it’s because stress can trigger behaviors that can damage oral health. Clenching or grinding your teeth, for instance, can contribute to headaches, TMJ problems, and pain in the jaws, face, neck, and shoulders. It can trigger gum recession, leading to tooth sensitivity and a greater risk of decay and gum disease. It can wear down and even break teeth.

Or think about the tendency to “stress-eat” comfort foods. Often, these are foods loaded with sugars, starches, and hyper-processed carbs – foods that are acidifying and feed the microbes that ultimately cause tooth decay. (They can also jumpstart canker sores, another oral problem that’s been linked to chronic stress.)

There’s also a tendency to get lazy about other healthy habits that support good oral health – exercise, hygiene, sufficient sleep, and the like. At the same time, you might temporarily turn to harmful habits such as smoking or excessive drinking in hopes of taking the edge off, at least for a while.

All these are murder on teeth and gums alike.

But even stress alone can have an impact. Even though you may experience it as mostly a mental thing, there’s a physiological response, as well. Simply, it responds as it would to any threat, marshalling resources to either fight or flee. This is great when you’re faced with an immediate physical threat but not so much for a daily sense of feeling overwhelmed by what life is throwing your way.

When your body is constantly on “red alert” in this way, with stress hormones like cortisol constantly surging, the end result is chronic inflammation.

And this, regular readers of this blog may recall, is a hallmark of gum disease and the common denominator that links it to a host of systemic health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cognitive decline, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic kidney disease, cancer, and more.

But we’re not here to add to your anxiety by pointing out all this. We’re here to help you figure out how to turn it around. After all, there’s so much to be gained as you become able to stop letting stress call all the shots.

The folks who put Fremont at the top of the stress-free list said they saw important factors like work, finances, family, and health as interconnected when it came to reducing stress. And isn’t interconnectedness also the foundation of holistic healthcare and self-care alike?

When we connect good nutrition, physical activity, and a positive mindset with ever-important oral hygiene, we have the building blocks of a holistic and healthy mouth-body connection. This balance that creates a lifestyle more focused on relieving stress than creating it, a lifestyle supporting whole body wellness for the long term.

We think that should also include identifying or developing strategies for handling stress, as well.

Talk about your feelings and anxieties. Share your desire for a calmer, more focused way of life with people who can guide you toward healthier choices, whether it’s coworkers, loved ones, holistic healthcare providers, or a spiritual advisor if that’s also part of your lifestyle. Ask for support and advice as you think about how your mood might be affecting your eating, sleeping, and oral hygiene habits.

And don’t try to overhaul every habit overnight – that’s apt to just lead to more stress!

Last, while we know the internet has plenty of stressful links, it’s also home to some terrific relaxation tools, from music to mimic those old sleep machines to guided breathing exercises that help you mentally cleanse and reset. There may even be a “how to relieve stress” listicle or two or five that may help!

We suspect your body and brain alike will thank you.

Photo of Mission Peak over Lake Elizabeth courtesy of Oleg Alexandrov via Wikimedia Commons

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