Did you know that anxiety and stress could affect your gums and teeth?

Most people know that stress can cause hypertension, diabetes, heart attack and numerous other health problems. What is less well known is that stress is also a risk factor for periodontal diseases or diseases of the gum. These are caused when bacteria build up between the gum and jaw bone, first leading to gum diseases and then invading the bone. The end result is bone loss.

Research across the world has shown that the immune system has a more difficult time fighting off infection in the presence of stress. A mild form of gum disease — called gingivitis — is likely to lead to more advanced forms of periodontitis, leading to loosening of the teeth when stress is part of the equation.

Strong relationship

A review of articles in the Journal of Periodontology (JOP) indicates a strong relationship between stress and periodontal diseases. Most studies indicate a strong correlation between stress, distress, anxiety, depression, loneliness and periodontal diseases. Studies are being conducted to determine the definitive relationship between the two but the common finding is that cortisol, a hormone produced by stress, can lead to increased destruction of gums and jaw bone, as well as to a suppressed immune system that allows the bacteria to flourish.

Stress also causes people to engage in smoking, eating unhealthy food or forgetting to clean their teeth properly and visit their dentists. These add to the problem. With higher amount of cortisol being produced, neuroendocrine and biochemical changes result in the immune system not functioning properly.

Stress is a possible cause for mouth ulcers too. Though there is a debate on this, research suggests that sores in the mouth tend to develop at times of high stress. Stress also leads to teeth grinding (known as bruxism). If one tends towards that habit, stress could make it worse. This can lead to problems with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) located in front of the ear where the skull and lower jaw meet.

Hence, people who minimise stress may be at a less risk for periodontal and other oral diseases. Symptoms of gum disease include tenderness, bleeding or swollen gums, bad breath and loose teeth. If untreated, gum diseases can lead to loss of teeth and bone in the jaw. Severe gum disease may need in-depth cleaning or scaling and advanced treatment.

To prevent periodontal diseases, stress reduction is critical. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, plenty of sleep, and a positive mental attitude is crucial to this. Yoga, meditation and breathing exercises are also beneficial. This will help you live better and longer with a healthy smile.

The author is a periodontist.