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Ask the Dentist: Watch your anxiety levels – pandemic stress could harm teeth

The pandemic has raised stress levels but chronic, acute anxiety can damage teeth, writes Lucy Stock, dentist at Gentle Dental Care in Belfast

Between March 20 and 30 49.6 per cent of people reported high anxiety, according to the ONS
Lucy Stock

THE number of people reporting high levels of anxiety has risen sharply since the start of the pandemic, according to the Office of National Statistics latest research.

Prolonged anxiety can come out in a number of physical ways that can affect your dental health. Normally we feel the unpleasant feelings of anxiety when we are in a dangerous situation as the body sets in motion its fight-or -light response, pumping out adrenaline and other neurotransmitters that rampage around the body readying ourselves for action.

Some of these neurotransmitters are targeted towards our stomach, leading to waves of nausea and at times actual vomiting. Stomach juices are designed to break down our food and kill any noxious bugs and so they are incredibly acidic, with a pH of between 1.5 and 3.5. (If the pH of a substance is 7 then this indicates that it is neutral – the lower the pH the more acidic it is.)

Bringing this hydrochloric acid up immediately raises acidity levels in the mouth. Teeth want to live in a mostly neutral environment so that they remain hard and, as such, we developed neutralising saliva to allow this to happen. Normally tooth enamel is in a constant state of flux, softening and hardening throughout the day as we eat and drink. If the vomiting was a one off, the saliva would naturally combat the acidity bringing it back up to a neutral pH.

However, if we live in a prolonged state of anxiety it can become difficult to switch off the flight-or-fight reaction. It's as if the anxiety switch is stuck at on and for some people this can mean repeated bouts of vomiting, which bathes the teeth too often in stomach acid, leading to the layers of the tooth just washing away. The teeth thin, start feeling sensitive and discolour over time.

People often try and settle their stomach with hot water and lemon or apple cider vinegar, both of which have a pH between 2 and 3, which makes them 10,000–100,000 times more acidic than water, so be careful of falling into this trap. Addressing your anxiety can help both your mood and your teeth.

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