A little stress now and then is okay – a good thing, in fact. It’s what helps you respond to any kind of threat or challenge. And it’s unavoidable. As Hans Selye, the endocrinologist who first identified the stress response, put it,
To eliminate stress completely would mean to destroy life itself. If you make no more demands upon your body, you are dead.
So when there’s a threat, your body reacts. Hormones such as cortisol shift the body into survival mode. Functions that aren’t essential to fighting the threat are dialed down, while energy and strength increase.
That’s ideal in the short term, but long term? Not so much.
Chronic stress keeps your body consistently on “red alert.” When cortisol levels stay high, it means things like cell damage and chronic inflammation as your body loses the ability to regulate inflammatory responses. It also inhibits DHEA release, a hormone that’s involved in the body’s ability to self-heal.
Another potential result? According to a new study, obesity.
Evaluating data from more than 2500 adults, its authors showed that high cortisol levels over time were associated with greater weight and girth. Cortisol levels were significantly higher in participants with a BMI over 30 and a waist circumference of more than 40 inches in men, 34 inches in women. Cortisol levels were also associated with retaining the weight over time.
And just what, you might be wondering, does this have to do with oral health? This is a dental blog, after all.
Stress and high cortisol also go hand-in-hand with gum disease.
For instance, an animal study in Experimental & Molecular Medicine highlighted a number of effects chronic stress has on periodontal tissues.
The results showed that [chronic stress] induced behavioral changes and increased corticosterone levels of the animals with periodontitis. [Chronic stress] stimulation markedly increased alveolar bone loss, periodontal pocket depth and the number of plaques. It also enhanced the inflammatory reaction.
A study published last fall in the Journal of Clinical Periodontology found that cortisol and DHEA levels in the saliva were associated with “more severe and aggressive forms of periodontal disease.”
Similarly, a study in the Journal of Indian Society of Periodontology found that “high serum cortisol levels and psychological stress are positively linked with chronic periodontitis.”
And research in the Journal of International Society of Preventive & Community Dentistry likewise found higher cortisol levels and worse periodontal health among those experiencing stress. Yoga, on the other hand, was found to correspond with lower cortisol, lower scores for anxiety and depression, and better periodontal health.
Of course, yoga is but one scientifically proven way of managing stress and reducing chronic inflammation. Other exercise and physical activity – even just daily walking – can help, too, as can dietary improvements. Customized supplementation and homeopathic regimens developed under an integrative practitioner’s care can provide a tremendous support, as well.
Once you get the upper hand on stress, you’ll start to feel your body (and mind) saying, “Thank you.”