Practically everyone is stressed in American society. Research indicates that perhaps one in four Americans is suffering from high levels of chronic stress, and perhaps 8 out of 10 suffer from work-related stress. This is a problem for your general health, and for your oral health, because stress can lead to an increase in gum disease, receding gums, and cavities.
The Stress-Oral Disease Connection
In the 1980s, people became interested in the myriad effects of stress on the body, including its impact on the mouth. Initial research focused on increases in cavities, with a number of studies linking cavities and stress (such as Smith 1989 and Sutton 1993).
Then in the late 1990s it became clear that it wasn’t just the teeth that suffered because of stress. Instead, it became clear that stress–especially job stress and financial stress–led to receding gums. Once you factored out all the potential confounders like systemic diseases (like diabetes, which can have a serious impact on your gums) age, smoking, and gender, higher levels of stress led to more gum detachment.
How Stress Leads to Oral Disease
In order to understand how stress actually causes oral health problems, we have to look at the behavioral and physiologic effects of stress.
Stress changes your behavior in ways that contribute to poor oral health. People who are stressed may tend to binge or snack between meals on sugary foods. They may also be more likely to smoke. Finally, when you are worried about other things you may not put enough emphasis on taking care of your teeth, and when finances are tight you might skip routine hygiene visits and minor dental treatments.
But it isn’t just behavior that impacts your teeth. Stress changes the function of body systems in ways that make you more vulnerable to gum disease and tooth decay. Chronic stress leads to a suppression of the immune system so your body isn’t as good at fighting off infection. Stress can also lead to try mouth. Saliva doesn’t just keep your mouth moist, it’s part of your defense against oral bacteria, and without it bacteria are more likely to multiply and their acids can be more damaging to both your teeth and gums.
Getting Past the Stress
Stressful times come and go, but it’s important to make sure you don’t end up with a permanent legacy from a temporary setback. If you think your oral health may have suffered as a result of a recent bout of stress, it’s time to see the dentist.