7 Ways Stress Compromises Oral Health (And What You Can Do About It)

Stress causes issues in a lot of areas, including our mental health, sleep patterns, daily productivity, bodily reactions and processes, and eating habits. The residual impact of stress can also affect our oral health. If you suffer from stress or anxiety on a daily basis, this article shows you how you can protect your oral health and reduce its impact on the rest of your body.

15 min read7 Ways Stress Affects Your Oral Health

Nothing good comes from stress. No matter the cause, it seriously impacts your health.

A weakened immune system, sleep deprivation, changes in everyday habits, limited productivity, and the constant feeling of being overwhelmed or anxious are all common symptoms of stress. And for those who suffer from chronic anxiety, stress can seem like an insurmountable obstacle.

Unfortunately, stress is something that impacts most people. 55% of Americans are stressed during the day and the global average out of 143 countries is 35%, according to research from the American Institute of Stress.

Although it is widely discussed and heavily researched, most people are unaware of its implications for oral health. Heightened stress levels can lead to several oral health problems, including bad breath, mouth sores, teeth grinding, jaw clenching, and gum disease.

Similar to the relationship between the pandemic and oral health, stress can wreak havoc on your gums, teeth, and mouth due to lifestyle changes, bodily reactions, and medical issues.

The good news is that you can implement several methods to reduce its impact, even as a chronic sufferer. If you need help managing your stress and understanding how it impacts your dental health, this article is for you.

Defining Stress And Anxiety

Before we delve into the different ways stress affects your oral health, let’s take a moment to define what it is (and what it isn't).

What Is Stress?

Stress is a physiological and psychological response to an external stimulus. Common examples of this include:

  • Job changes, layoffs, or heavy workloads
  • Death of a loved one
  • Moving to a new home or city
  • Financial hardship or insecurity
  • Relationship problems
  • Illness or injury
  • Starting a new business

It involves the body's ability to react to any sort of demand or challenge, otherwise known as a stressor. Stressors can be physical, such as intense exercise, or psychological, such as demands at work.

During times of stress, the body's natural defense system is activated, releasing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline that prepare the body for fight-or-flight to deal with the threat effectively.

These hormones increase breathing rate, heart rate, and muscle tension. In addition, stress can lead to inflammation throughout the body which can affect both physical and mental health if left untreated.

Side Effects Of Stress

Stress is a familiar feeling for most—a March 2022 ValuePenguin survey found that 84% of individuals feel stressed at least once per week, and nearly everybody experiences stress at some point in their life.

The most common side effects of stress include:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Digestive issues
  • Lack of concentration

These side effects can take a toll on your body. A vast body of research points to its impact on the nervous system, cognitive function, energy level, immune system, and cardiovascular health, among countless other areas.

Stress Vs. Anxiety: What's The Difference?

Although stress and anxiety are both emotional reactions, the source of stress is usually due to an external factor.

This can manifest as a short-term event like meeting a work target or having an argument with someone close to you. Or, it could result from something longer lasting, such as unemployment, prejudice, or long-term health issues.

People going through stressful situations may experience symptoms of frustration, weariness, aches in their muscles and joints, digestive problems, along with difficulty sleeping.

In contrast, anxiety is characterized by persistent apprehensions that remain even in the absence of a stressor.

Its symptoms are identical to those caused by stress: sleeplessness, impaired concentration, tiredness, tensioned muscles, and irritability. But, they are more likely to be felt in an ongoing way rather than stemming from a single event.

In some cases, anxiety is part of a larger mental health disorder like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, a phobia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Stress is often seen as a contributing factor or symptom of these conditions, but it isn't necessarily their primary cause.

Can stress Impact Oral Health?

As mentioned, stress causes numerous side effects that have body-wide implications. There are two primary ways that stress can impact your dental and oral health:

  • The side effects of stress, including dry mouth, inflammation, compromised immune system function, and clenching and grinding of teeth can lead to dental problems.
  • Coping mechanisms for stress can lead to habits that ruin your teeth, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, not brushing and flossing regularly, eating too much or too little, or eating the wrong types of foods.

In serious cases, teeth are usually impacted by both of these factors, leading to an increased likelihood of dental issues and poor oral hygiene.

Oral health can also impact well-being. Poor oral health can lead to sensitivity, eating and speaking problems, self-consciousness, psychological distress, and an increased risk of other diseases.

The Impact Of Stress And Anxiety On Oral Health

In order to make lifestyle and mental health improvements, you must first understand the link between stress, anxiety, and oral health.

The effects of these conditions can be broken into two groups: physical and mental symptoms.

  • Physical Symptoms: Stress can lead to grinding and clenching of teeth, also referred to as bruxism. This action causes jaw pain and may lead to TMJ disorders or other dental problems. Additionally, stress can cause dry mouth, which increases the risk of cavities and decay.
  • Mental Symptoms: Stress and anxiety can lead to decreased self-care, resulting in poor oral hygiene, such as not brushing or flossing. It can also cause avoidance of dental appointments which leads to a lack of consistent checkups and preventative care.

Physical and mental symptoms can lead to a host of oral health problems, including bad breath, gum disease, tooth decay, and tooth loss.

7 Ways Stress Affects Oral Health

Now that you understand how stress and anxiety can negatively affect your oral health, here are seven ways that it can do so:

1. Jaw Clenching

Our body has incredible defensive mechanisms that are often overlooked. Muscle tension is an instinct reaction of the body to protect us from pain and harm when we experience stress. If you're subject to constant stress, this consistent muscle strain in your jaws can cause painful stiffness or even TMJ over time.

TMJ—or Temporomandibular joint— disorders affect the joints of your jaw, resulting in pain, discomfort, and difficulty moving your jaw.

  • Symptoms of TMJ disorders include:
  • Clicking or popping sounds when you move your jaw
  • Restricted jaw motion
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Headaches and neck pain
  • Toothaches
  • Difficulty chewing

Beyond discomfort, TMJ disorders can also make it difficult to close and open your mouth properly. An overwhelming majority of patients (63%) have reported a shift in seeking regular professional dental care due to their TMJ.

Many more patients forego regular oral hygiene because of the pain or difficulty they experience when brushing and flossing their teeth.

2. Teeth Grinding

Bruxism (i.e., teeth grinding) is a common condition that occurs when individuals clench and grind their teeth, often in response to stress or anxiety. And when your mind is preoccupied with stress, your body may unconsciously follow suit and clench your jaw without you realizing it.

This habit can cause your teeth to break down, become misaligned, or even wear away over time. When left untreated, bruxism can cause the following symptoms:

  • Worn down enamel
  • Sensitive teeth
  • Chipped or loose teeth
  • Tightness in the jaw
  • Headaches or earaches

3. Dry Mouth

Extensive research has linked dry mouth to numerous oral health issues, and there are numerous reasons for this.

  • Saliva is essential for flushing bacteria from our mouth and preventing plaque buildup along the gum line. When less saliva is produced, it leads to an accumulation of bacteria on our teeth and gums that can lead to cavities, gum disease, bad breath, and more.
  • Acids left on teeth erode enamel. And without saliva to wash bacteria away, teeth are left unprotected.
  • Saliva is the first part of the digestive process and is crucial for breaking down food. Without it, you may experience difficulty chewing your food or an overall decrease in your mouth's ability to taste.

Stress has adverse effects on your nervous system that cause your salivary glands to stop producing saliva. This often leads to dry mouth and an increased risk of cavities and decay.

4. Gum Infections

Stress is a major contributor to weakened immunity, making it difficult for the body to protect itself against infections. This can have devastating consequences on your health, including an increased risk of periodontal disease due to inflammation caused by elevated levels of cortisol in the gums.

One study even found that the increased risk of periodontal disease isn't the only problem—the severity of gum disease is also higher in those with higher levels of stress.

5. Poor Eating Habits

27% of adults admit to eating as a coping mechanism for stress. And 34% of those who eat compulsively say it is a habit.

When we're under stress, our ability to make informed decisions is often impaired. We may reach for sugary or processed snacks as a way to cope, leading us to overlook healthier options when it comes to fueling our body.

There are several foods and drinks that damage teeth, and unfortunately, these are often the same foods we reach for when we're stressed.

Starchy foods like potato chips and cookies can stick to your teeth, leading to cavities.

Sugary drinks like soda wear away tooth enamel and increase the risk of cavities and decay because they are so acidic.

Sweets like candy and ice cream coat your teeth in sugar that bacteria feed on, which can further increase the risk of dental problems.

Although easier said than done, it is important to make the effort to eat healthier and choose foods that support your oral health when you're stressed. Other coping mechanisms, such as exercising or meditating, can also help to reduce stress levels.

6. Unhealthy Lifestyle Choices

Lifestyle choices play a significant role in stress levels. There are several different ways that our lifestyle can contribute to stress, including:

  • Sedentary Lifestyle: A sedentary lifestyle is one of the major culprits in high-stress levels, as it leads to a lack of physical activity and poor sleep patterns.
  • Excessive Drinking: Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it suppresses the body's natural stress response. But it also leads to dehydration, excessive sugar intake, and malnutrition—all things that impact dental health. For the 60% of adults who drink because of stress, this can seriously affect their oral health.
  • Tobacco Use: Using tobacco products increases the risk of cavities, gum disease, and oral cancer. It has also been linked to a decrease in saliva production—which is essential for maintaining healthy teeth and gums.
  • Vaping: Those who don't use tobacco but continue to use nicotine are also at risk. The relationship between vaping and oral health is less researched, but still carries significant health risks.
  • Drug Use: According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 13% of Americans began using drugs (or increased their current use) due to the stress of COVID-19. Aside from the pandemic, there are many other stressors that drive people to use drugs—all of which can have a damaging effect on oral health.

Lifestyle choices play a significant role in the general well-being of our bodies. In addition to increased risk of cavities and gum disease, an unhealthy lifestyle can cause severe damage to our teeth and gums.

7. Lacking Dental Hygiene

According to research from the American Psychological Association, 27% of adults say they are so stressed they cannot function.

This inability to carry out daily tasks manifests itself in many ways:

  • Poor performance at work
  • Relationship problems
  • Lack of sleep
  • Messy living spaces
  • Quitting activities like exercise

Many people also forego different aspects of their daily routines when they experience high levels of stress—including dental hygiene.

It is essential to brush and floss your teeth twice a day, as well as use mouthwash and see the dentist regularly. Doing so helps to reduce plaque buildup, which can lead to cavities and gum disease if left untreated.

What Is Oral Anxiety?

Those who suffer from dental problems like yellow teeth, cavities, or bad breath may feel self-conscious about their appearance and avoid dental appointments.

And although this sounds like "oral anxiety," it isn't.

Oral anxiety describes how mental health problems like stress and anxiety directly and residually impact oral health.

As mentioned, if you suffer from chronic stress or anxiety, you are more likely to experience poor oral health due to lifestyle choices, inadequate dental hygiene, higher cortisol levels, and the symptoms associated with these conditions.

Anxiety Symptoms In Your Mouth

When people think of anxiety, they usually think about panic attacks, excessive worrying, and insomnia. But anxiety can also manifest itself in physical symptoms that affect the mouth.

1. Dry Mouth And Bad Breath From Increased Cortisol Levels

Cortisol is a hormone released by the body during times of stress. It is released by the adrenal gland and helps regulate blood sugar levels, metabolism, immunity, and other important functions in the body.

Cortisol also affects mood, motivation, and fear responses. High cortisol levels can cause physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate, sweating, tiredness, digestive problems, headaches, and high blood pressure.

Long-term elevated cortisol levels are associated with weight gain as well as increased risk of depression and anxiety disorders.

Because of all of these factors, cortisol has been linked to dental problems. The increased inflammation from higher cortisol levels affects saliva production, leading to dry mouth, bad breath, and inflamed gums.

2. Teeth Grinding (Bruxism)

When people experience high levels of stress, they tend to clench their jaws and grind their teeth—a condition known as bruxism. Consistent teeth grinding can lead to gum recession, tooth erosion, jaw pain and headaches, and temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ).

3. Infectious Diseases

Since stress is linked to weakened immune systems, people who experience chronic stress are more likely to suffer from infections.

This includes mouth sores, gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), and periodontitis (gum disease).

4. Receding Gums

Gum recession can happen as a result of many different side effects of stress, including increased bacteria in the mouth, teeth grinding, poor nutrition, and lack of dental hygiene. When gums recede, the roots of teeth become exposed and can cause immense sensitivity.

5. Lichen Planus

Lichen planus is an inflammatory disorder that affects the skin, mouth, and scalp. It is characterized by a red, itchy rash with white streaks or spots and can be painful or uncomfortable. In some cases, it may also cause lesions in the inner lining of the cheeks and tongue.

In the mouth, it looks like lacy, white patches that can cause burning, soreness, and blistering. Studies have linked it to stress, as well as autoimmune diseases and certain medications.

6. Burning Mouth Syndrome

Burning mouth syndrome is a condition that causes a burning sensation in the tongue and other parts of the mouth. It can affect any area inside the mouth, including the lips, cheeks, or throat, but it is most commonly located on the tongue.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may last for minutes or hours at a time. The cause of this condition is sometimes unknown, but stress and other psychological factors are often the main culprits, according to Mayo Clinic.

Treatment typically involves medications to ease symptoms while doctors work to identify and address potential underlying causes.

7. Tooth Decay

If you have chronic stress and don't stick to a regular teeth cleaning routine (i.e., brushing your teeth twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste), your risk of tooth decay increases. Tooth decay can be caused by the bacteria in your mouth, which thrive when saliva production decreases due to elevated cortisol levels.

To catch tooth decay, look for black dots on teeth, red and swollen gums, or other signs of infection. If left untreated, tooth decay can cause pain and even lead to tooth loss.

How To Manage Stress And Improve Your Oral Health

When it comes to improving your oral health, improving your life, and navigating your stress, finding ways to manage it is key. Here are a few essential tips to help you reduce stress and protect your smile.

Find Constructive Ways To Manage Your Stress.

Drinking, smoking, and eating poorly are bad for your health for three reasons:

  1. They increase your risk of health complications. The risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions increases as a result of these unhealthy habits. Diabetes has a direct impact on your oral health, as do smoking and other nicotine-related products.
  2. They create negative dependencies. Smoking, drinking, and eating unhealthy foods as a coping mechanism can create dependencies that put your life—and your oral health—at risk. It can also lead to addictions and disorders, which create more problems rather than solve the issue of stress.
  3. They interfere with your daily routine. When you are stressed out and trying to manage it, you may not stick to your dental hygiene routine or other healthy habits. This can lead to further oral health problems down the line, such as gum disease, cavities, and more.

What is considered a healthy replacement for these potential coping mechanisms will be different for everyone.

Some of the most common positive stress management techniques include exercise, breath work, yoga, mindfulness exercises such as meditation, journaling, and creative outlets like drawing.

Eat A Balanced Diet.

Eating a balanced diet is essential for your oral health. A healthy diet will include a variety of nutritious foods and beverages, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.

Whole foods like these are better for your teeth, your health, and your overall well-being. They help to reduce inflammation in the body, boost your immune system, and provide essential vitamins and minerals that promote oral health.

Avoid Caffeine.

Caffeine is a stimulant, meaning it heightens anxiety, raises blood pressure, and elevates your heart rate. This means that it can cause additional stress, create it out of thin air, and make it harder to manage.

One study from The Ohio State University found that caffeinated products more than doubled the levels of cortisol and epinephrine in the body compared to a placebo. Although drinks like coffee are often seen as necessities, learning to live without caffeine can help to reduce stress and make it easier to cope with day-to-day life.

In terms of dental health, coffee causes yellow teeth. And since it is acidic and tannic, it can lead to erosion and staining of tooth enamel.

Stay Hydrated By Drinking Plenty Of Water.

The cliché reminder to "drink water" is as important for your oral health as it is for your overall health. Staying hydrated heightens your saliva production, facilitating the removal of bacteria, food particles and other debris that can accumulate in the mouth.

Especially for those who suffer from chronic stress or anxiety, drinking water can moisten the mouth and help to reduce the feeling of dryness that can come with stress.

Make Time For Physical Activity.

Exercise is an essential component of managing stress and improving your overall health. It increases the release of endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that act as natural painkillers and can help reduce feelings of stress or anxiety.

It's also important to note that exercise helps to improve circulation, which in turn boosts the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the entire body, including the mouth. This helps to strengthen your teeth and gums and promote oral health.

Exercise is also one of the best ways to reduce stress, according to Harvard University (and just about every medical professional out there).

Visit The Dentist Regularly.

It is essential to visit the dentist twice a year, even during times of high stress or anxiety. It is easy to put off dental appointments when life gets hectic or stressful, but it is important to make them a priority in order to keep your oral health in check.

Regular teeth cleanings are essential, especially considering the added risk of gum disease and cavities caused by high stress levels.

The dentist can also provide advice on ways to reduce your stress and look for any other oral health issues that may be present.

Consider Teeth Whitening To Reverse Cosmetic Damage.

If you already have yellow or stained teeth due to stress-related habits like smoking, drinking coffee, or poor diet, teeth whitening can help reverse the cosmetic damage.

An in-office whitening treatment from your dentist can restore your smile and boost your confidence in one easy appointment.

If these treatments are too cost-prohibitive, there are also plenty of at-home whitening options, such as whitening strips, gels, and trays. These can be bought over the counter and provide a more affordable way to brighten your smile.

Brush Your Teeth Twice Daily.

The importance of brushing your teeth every day cannot be overstated. Of all the things you can do to keep your oral health in check, brushing and flossing is the most important.

A good toothbrush should be used twice a day. Brushing removes bacteria and plaque from the surface of teeth, while flossing helps to clear away food particles that become stuck between teeth.

Want to learn more? Here are some questions are customers frequently ask us.

How Do You Relieve Stress From Your Teeth?

If your teeth begin to show signs of wear and tear due to stress, it is important to take steps to reduce the level of stress in your life. Try to incorporate relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation into your routine, as well as making time for physical activity. Also consider cutting out unnecessary stressors and replacing them with activities that make you happy.

Can Teeth Become Sensitive Because Of Stress?

Tooth sensitivity is one of the many residual impacts of stress. Teeth can become sensitive to hot and cold foods due to the damage caused by grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw, both of which are common reactions to stress. If you experience sensitivity, try using desensitizing toothpaste or see a dentist for more options.

Can Your Dentist Tell If You Are Stressed Out?

Your dentist is not able to tell if you are stressed out, but they will be able to observe any physical symptoms of stress that may present in your mouth. These signs can include worn teeth, increased sensitivity, and receding gums. If your dentist notices these signs, they may ask follow-up questions about your lifestyle and stress levels.

Can Stress Or Anxiety Cause My Teeth To Shift Or Move?

Over time without treatment, stress and anxiety can cause your teeth to shift or move. This is because the pressure caused by clenching and grinding your teeth can eventually lead to a jaw misalignment. Tooth decay and gum recession can also occur when a person is chronically stressed—both of which can cause teeth to move around.

Why Do My Teeth Hurt After Crying?

The sinus area uses the same nerve pathways that supply sensation to your teeth, which is why crying can sometimes cause a person's teeth to hurt. Many individuals feel the same sensations when they have congestion or allergies, which can cause the area around your teeth to become inflamed.

Can Stress Cause Toothache?

Yes. Stress and anxiety can trigger muscle tension in the jaw that can cause teeth grinding. And clenching your jaws may produce aches and pains due to the wearing down of enamel and additional pressure on the teeth.

Can Stress Cause Tooth Decay?

Stress does not directly cause tooth decay, but its effects can lead to cavities and other oral health problems. When you are stressed, you may begin to grind your teeth or clench your jaw, which can wear away enamel and cause pain. Stress can also cause poor eating habits, such as snacking on sugary treats, which can increase the risk of tooth decay.

Does Stress Cause Mouth Ulcers?

Mouth ulcers can result from poor dental hygiene, a weakened immune system, dry mouth, and other health issues. Stress can cause all of these side effects, and so it is likely to be a contributing factor when mouth ulcers are present.

Can You Lose Teeth From Stress?

You cannot lose teeth from stress alone. But the strain that comes with stress can cause you to grind and clench your teeth, which over time can wear away at the enamel and cause tooth decay. If left untreated, this—among other side effects of stress—can lead to tooth loss.

Can Stress Affect Oral Health?

Stress levels are closely linked to your oral health. High stress can cause teeth grinding, jaw clenching, poor eating habits, mouth ulcers, and a whole host of other oral health issues. To protect your oral health (among other things), it is crucial to take steps to reduce stress in your life.

Can Stress Make Your Teeth Fall Out?

Stress does not directly cause teeth to fall out, but the effects of stress can lead to tooth loss over time. Teeth grinding and jaw clenching caused by stress can wear away at the enamel, leading to cavities or even more serious gum diseases that may require the removal of a tooth.

Can Stress Cause Tooth Infections?

When your immune system is weakened, it can be harder to fight off bacteria and infections, including tooth infections. If you are under excessive stress, your immune system may not be able to respond quickly enough to protect your teeth from bacterial buildup that can result in an infection. So while the stress itself does not cause a tooth infection, it can increase the risk of one occurring.

Does Stress Cause Dry Mouth?

One of the main symptoms of chronic stress is dry mouth. Increased levels of cortisol—a hormone released in response to stress—can lead to less saliva production. This can make it difficult for your body to fight off germs and bacteria, leaving you more susceptible to tooth infections and cavities.