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Last Updated on April 3, 2023 by Randy Withers, LCMHC
Are mental health and oral health connected?
Let’s look at the evidence, starting with physical health in general.
Research shows a clear link between good physical health and positive mental wellbeing. When you exercise, you experience a release of endorphins that makes you feel more focused.
The opposite is also true: if you eat poorly, sleep rarely, and never exercise, you’re more likely to develop chronic low moods and stress-induced mental illness.
Oral hygiene is an important part of your overall physical health as well. But have you ever thought about the relationship between oral hygiene and mental wellbeing?
Your mouth is a breeding ground for bacteria, both good and bad, which can make its way into your gut and bloodstream, which has a direct effect on your emotional health.
Read on to learn more about the relationship between your oral health and your state of mind.
The Link Between Mental Health and Oral Health
There is an explicit link between mental health and oral health.
Research shows that those suffering from acute mental illnesses are 2.7 times more likely to experience tooth loss due to gum and decay. And, the relationship between mental and oral health is reciprocal. Poor oral health may lead to poor mental health and exacerbate already existing issues.
Research also shows that long-term oral infections can cause the metastatic spread of inflammation around your body. As your immune system fights to protect you from pathogens, it will become weaker. A weaker immune system can lead to depression and other mental health disorders.
Some studies show that oral infections can lead to a decrease in cognitive function. When your neural system is negatively affected, you can experience heightened levels of apathy and anxiety.
Eating Disorders and Oral Health
People suffering from eating disorders are prone to oral health issues due to malnourishment and acid wear.
Sufferers of anorexia nervosa frequently abstain from food, or strictly limit a specific food group and calories.
The longer you go without food, the more likely it is that you’ll experience acid reflux (or gastroesophageal reflux). This reflux occurs when your stomach acid moves back up into your throat, causing heartburn or vomiting.
An increase in vomiting and the regularity of your acid reflux leads to tooth decay and erosion. The acid damages your teeth by extracting and breaking down the enamel layer’s calcium.
This process exposes your sensitive dentine layer to external substances, leading to tooth sensitivity, decay, and loss.
Sufferers of the bulimia nervosa and rumination disorders regularly self-induce vomiting, leading to prolonged acid exposure and wearing down enamel.
Research shows that over a third of those suffering from eating disorders will experience tooth decay. People who regularly regurgitate their food and drink are over 7 times more likely to suffer from tooth decay.
It’s also worth noting that people with eating disorders are more likely to suffer from obsessive disorders like OCD. These disorders make them more inclined to over-brush their teeth, leading to increased levels of tooth erosion.
Can infected teeth cause depression?
While it is not fair to say that infected teeth (i.e., gum disease) cause depression, consider it a contributing factor.
Studies show a relationship between inflammation in the body and increased levels of depression. While many factors play a role in the development of clinical depression, both are linked to increased inflammatory activation of the immune system. This in turn affects the central nervous system and can lead to mood disturbance.
Gum disease is a major source of inflammation, so good oral hygiene is as essential to mental wellness as exercise, sleep, and relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and yoga.
Interestingly, one of the many benefits of an effective anti-depressant is decreased levels of inflammation, which mitigates the effects of gum disease. Still, take care of your teeth. Brushing and flossing regularly is still the best way to achieve good oral health.
How Do Drugs Affect Oral Health?
Drug and alcohol addictions are also classified as mental illnesses. Prolonged substance abuse can induce many mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and psychosis.
However, substance abuse often acts as a comorbid illness: it accentuates and worsens an existing mental health concern. Of the 20 million US adults with substance abuse problems in 2014, it was determined that approximately 8 million also had a mental affliction.
Substance abuse is also a real concern when it comes to both mental health and oral health. Alcohol has a high acid content and erodes your enamel. The nicotine within your cigarettes works to loosen the lower esophageal sphincter, leading to acid reflux. Drinking too much coffee will also lead to acid reflux.
Alcohol is a depressant that relaxes your muscles and impairs your cognitive function. Alcoholism can lead to chronic depression and anxiety. Research shows that depressed people are less likely to look after their teeth properly due to disinterest and apathy.
Do Prescribed Medications Affect Oral Health?
Specific forms of prescription medication may cause side effects that lead to tooth decay and poor oral health.
Psychotropic drugs, in particular, can cause tooth and gum issues because they can limit the production of saliva, leading to xerostomia. This condition consequently causes tooth loss and gum disease.
In some cases, medication can cause bruxism (or teeth grinding). If untreated, this grinding can cause severe tooth decay.
Can Stress And Anxiety Cause Mouth Problems?
Poor oral health can work to increase your overall levels of anxiety and stress.
Nearly half of everyone who goes to the dentist feels some heightened level of anxiety. If you’re about to undergo a relatively invasive dental treatment, like dental implantation or root canal therapy, you may find your anxiety levels increasing.
If you already suffer from an anxiety or major depressive disorder, you may also find that even routine dental treatment is uncomfortable. Stress and anxiety disorders may heighten the sufferer’s perception of discomfort.
However, you may exacerbate gum and tooth problems if you fail to see your dentist for any oral health concerns. The longer you leave a tooth or gum issue untreated, the more likely it is that you’ll require substantial surgical treatment later, which increases anxiety levels.
Infrequent dental visits may also lead to more severe oral health problems like gum cancer. This type of cancer may look like gingivitis but can progress quickly and spread into other parts of your body. A diagnosis of advanced-stage cancer may lead to increased anxiety and depression.
Final Thoughts About Mental Health and Oral Health
Mental health and oral health are inextricably linked. If you suffer from poor mental health, you’re more likely to develop tooth and gum-related issues.
Furthermore, if you don’t practice proper oral hygiene or visit your dentist, you’re more likely to create and exacerbate existing mental health problems.
Making both your mental health and oral health a priority is an excellent way to help alleviate the effects of stress and anxiety-induced disorders.
If you have a mental illness, take the time and effort to care for your teeth and gums.
- No Mental Health without Oral Health
- Substance Use and Mental Health
- Association Between Oral Health and Cognitive Status: A Systematic Review
- Systemic Diseases Caused by Oral Infection
- Protecting your mental health can help your oral health
- How Mental Health And Oral Health Are Connected (.pdf)
- The relationship between physical inactivity and mental wellbeing: Findings from a gamification-based community-wide physical activity intervention
- The Role of Inflammation in Depression and Fatigue
- Update knowledge of dry mouth- A guideline for dentists