Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a fair amount of talk about how spiking stress levels seem to have contributed to more dental problems.
More than 70% of dentists surveyed saw an increase of patients experiencing teeth grinding and clenching, conditions often associated with stress — up from just under 60% in the fall. More specifically, 71% of dentists surveyed reported an increase in prevalence of teeth grinding and clenching; 63% for chipped teeth; 63% for cracked teeth; and 62% for temporomandibular joint disorder symptoms, which includes headaches and jaw pain.
Others have noted rising rates of decay and gum disease, too – and, yes, stress can play a role in these conditions, too. For one, stress can contribute to dry mouth, which raises your risk of these common problems. It also fuels chronic inflammation and can make you crave sugary, carby foods even more, adding fuel to the fire while also feeding harmful bacteria in your mouth.
Last fall, new research on stress and gum disease in particular gave us even more evidence as to why stress management is an important part of dealing with the problem.
Published in Clinical Oral Investigations, the study involved over 600 adults who were each evaluated for stress and given a thorough periodontal exam. Just under half were found to be stressed. Of those, about one-quarter had periodontitis, or severe gum disease. And when they weighed stress against various measures of periodontal health?
The frequency of these outcomes among those exposed to stress was 15–36% higher than those without the condition of stress, after adjustment for age, sex, schooling level, current smoking habit, pulmonary disease, and body mass index.
These findings, the researchers concluded, show a “positive association between exposure to stress and the presence of periodontitis, reaffirming the need to prevent and control stress.”
So, no stress, no problem, right? Not entirely, suggests a recent study in the journal Emotion.
In this case, the researchers wanted to find out the potential health impact of a life with no stressors. After 2804 adults completed daily diaries for a set period, the team found 10% who “reported experiencing no stressors across 8 days.”
Those reporting no stressors were generally older, male, unmarried, and were less likely to work, provide or receive emotional support, or experience positive daily events. They reported greater daily affective well-being and fewer chronic health conditions but had lower levels of cognitive functioning.
The difference they found was equal to 8 years of aging.
But why might living stress-free lead to worse cognitive function? The authors suggest that daily stress might actually be “a proxy to engagement in social activities” – engagement that, according to other research, may be protective. Additionally, as co-author David M. Almeida put it in a news release on the study,
I think experiencing small daily stressors like having an argument with somebody or having your computer break down or maybe being stuck in traffic, I think they might be a marker for someone who has a busy and maybe full life. Having some stress is just an indicator that you are engaged in life.”
It’s a bit of a trade-off. Less engagement means better physical and emotional wellness, but at the expense of cognitive function. More engagement means more stress, but also a sharper brain.
For stress, as we’ve noted before, isn’t all bad. It’s part of life, and your body has built in mechanisms for dealing with it. They’re what help you push through when you perceive a threat. It only spells trouble when it’s unrelenting, keeping your body in a state of constant red alert.
“Stressors are events that create challenges in our lives,” Almeida said. “And I think experiencing stressors is part of life. There could be potential benefits to that. I think what’s important is how people respond to stressors. Responding to a stressor by being upset and worried is more unhealthy than the number of stressors you encounter.”