Ask The Dentist: Did you know that stress can affect your oral and dental health?

Dentist Lucy Stock of Gentle Dental Care in Belfast highlights the links between oral health and stress

Our oral health is one aspect of our overall wellbeing that can be severely affected by stress

THE World Health Organisation has dubbed stress the “health epidemic of the 21st century” and in order to raise awareness of the problem, April 2018 has been deemed Stress Awareness Month.

The Mental Health Foundation states "research has shown that around 12 million adults in the UK see their GP with mental health problems each year. Most of these suffer from anxiety and depression and much of this is stress-related."

Stress can directly and indirectly affect our mouth health. The more stressed we get the more we tend to neglect ourselves and our home cleaning routines can quickly go out the window. On top of that, high stress levels often tip us into adopting quick-fix stress relievers, like smoking and drinking more, that have a deleterious affect on our health.

Since 1950, scientists have pointed fingers at stress as being a potential culprit involved in making gum disease worse. One type of acute gum disease that highlights the link between gum disease and stress is known as acute necrotising ulcerative gingivitis.

ANUG is exquisitely painful, gives foul breath and causes the pink gum triangles between the teeth to necrose and fall off. It's typical in students around exam times when stress levels rocket, smoking increases and oral hygiene is low down on the priority list.

So how does stress affect the gums? When the body is under stress it produces elevated amounts of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol functions to reduce inflammation, which is good, but over time, these efforts to reduce inflammation also suppress the immune system, which in turn makes gum disease worse.

In a study at Osaka University School of Dentistry, dentists examined 219 factory workers for a span of four years to trace the connection between gum disease and certain lifestyle variables. The factors included physical exercise, hours of sleep, hours of work, alcohol use, tobacco use, eating breakfast and mental stress.

Interestingly among the results, sleep was ranked as the second-highest factor influencing gum disease after smoking. We've all been there, not able to sleep due to our life worries whizzing around our minds. This stress-disturbed sleep pattern means that there's a lack of quality sleep, which in turn triggers an increased production of inflammatory hormones.

So how can we minimise stress and its effects on our oral health? Try to take control of how you deal with stress. We can avoid situations that cause us to become stressed but often this isn't practical. A second way is to change how you react to stress. This is often the better way. Exercise, a better diet and deep breathing exercises can be very beneficial.

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