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The remarkable ways mental health impacts your teeth

Woman with toothache. Experts say there is a link between oral health and mental health. (Getty Images)
There is a link between oral health and mental health. (Getty Images)

From Blue Monday to the January blues, this time of the year is traditionally linked with feeling a little low. But while we're aware that our mood impacts on our mind, what we might not realise is how it could also affect our teeth.

Turns out our oral and mental health are very closely intertwined. When you're struggling with your mental wellbeing, brushing your teeth properly twice a day can feel like a stretch and going to the dentist may seem unthinkable.

But the link works both ways, with those experiencing poor oral health often also suffering with low mental wellbeing.

Science backs up this dental/mental link, with studies highlighting an association between mental health problems and tooth loss, periodontal disease, and tooth decay.

The research, conducted to capture attitudes, experiences, and behaviours related to oral health, mental health, and unmet oral health needs, found that visiting the dentist was more common amongst individuals with good mental health.

The research also found that individuals identifying as having poor mental health were three times more likely to rate their oral health as poor.

A report by Public Health England acknowledges the country's oral health inequality, highlighting the fact that people on lower incomes are more likely to be stressed and to have damage to their teeth, but are also less likely to be able to afford to fix them.

“Struggling with your mental health can make tasks like taking care of your oral health seem very difficult, from getting up to brush your teeth or going for regular check-ups," explains Dr Khaled Kasem, chief orthodontist at Impress.

"But equally, our teeth and our smiles form a big part of our identity. Oral health problems can really impact a person's quality of life and lead to worsening mental health problems, from your eating, speech and self-esteem.”

Woman inspecting her teeth. (Getty Images)
When you're struggling with your mental health you might be less likely to look after your teeth. (Getty Images)

How mental health impacts your teeth

Dr Kasem shares how your mental health can impact your dental health and what you can do about it.

Depression

Dr Kasem says depression has been shown to decrease the production of saliva, and may leave your mouth feeling parched and scratchy, particularly at night-time.

"Due to the inability to produce enough saliva you will develop dry mouth, otherwise known as xerostomia," he explains. "To reduce this, you should make sure you drink plenty of water and ensure any mouthwash you are using contains no alcohol.

"If your xerostomia occurs beyond stressful periods, be sure to talk to your dentist about specific solutions and preventive measures," Dr Kasem adds.

Stress

It’s no surprise many Brits will be feeling stressed at this time of the year, with financial and emotional worries starting to bite, but did you know that stress can be one of the main reasons behind bruxism, AKA teeth grinding.

"Bruxism is the technical word for teeth grinding, gnashing, or clenching – an involuntary reaction to anger, fear or stress," Dr Kasem explains.

"It can happen during the day in a more common form of jaw clenching (awake bruxism) or during the night (sleep bruxism)."

While mild cases might not require treatment, Dr Kasem says those who frequently clench and apply too much stress could develop severe jaw disorders, headaches, damaged teeth, as well as other problems.

"While the most significant activity usually takes place in your sleep, it’s best to check several times each day to ensure your teeth aren’t clenched together," he advises. "If you notice chips, sharp or flattened edges, you may be suffering from bruxism and should seek help from your dentist."

Woman struggling with toothache. (Getty Images)
Studies have revealed a link between our mental health and our oral hygiene. (Getty Images)

Anxiety

Nail biting often occurs when people are anxious or in stressful situations. However, it’s best to refrain from nail biting if you’re anxious as it can have serious consequences on your mouth such as germs or even warts transferring from your hand and causing oral infections.

"If you’re undergoing aligning treatment, biting your nails could potentially damage your aligners, and therefore affect the process," Dr Kasem says.

To prevent nail biting, he advises keeping your nails trimmed short, replacing the nail-biting with a good habit, and applying a bitter-tasting nail polish to your nails.

"Bear in mind these are only a quick fix, and you should identify any triggers that are causing you to bite your nails and seek help if you need to," he adds.

Force yourself to smile!

Even if you are feeling low forcing yourself to smile, even just for a few minutes, will have more of a positive impact on your oral health than you realise.

"Your emotional state and immune function are deeply connected, so smiling will trigger the release of dopamine which helps to regulate your immune system," Dr Kasem explains. "As the level of dopamine rises, the number of antibodies in the body increases, which is crucial to keeping your mouth healthy, and helping to stay fit and well in general."

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