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The Impact of Stress on Your Oral Health

18 October,2018

The Impact of Stress on Your Oral Health

Dental on Clarendon welcomes our first GP guest blog contributor, Dr Elaine Sung from Doctors of South Melbourne.

We all know that prolonged and intense stress isn’t good for us. Insomnia, headaches, depression and anxiety are but a handful of adverse health effects.

Yet, relatively little is spoken about the huge impact stress and anxiety can have on our oral health.

Common Health Issues

As a GP, I see many patients who complain about all manner of oral health issues. Once I dig a bit deeper into their lifestyle and work situation, I’m not surprised to find stress is often the source of the problem.

The good news is that stress is a very manageable condition, even though it may initially be hard to see the forest for the trees. Better still, stress management without medication and ‘happy pills’ is incredibly effective.

In the following, I’ll look at the more common oral health complaints attributed to stress and outline strategies to break the cycle of stress.

Grinding and Clenching of Teeth

Bruxism is the broad term for grinding or clenching your teeth. It’s usually an involuntary action that happens while you’re sleeping.

It can cause all kinds of problems with your teeth and head. Painful jaw muscles, cracked tooth enamel and broken teeth are but a few issues that can result. Should you grind down or crack a molar tooth, sometimes you'll need to get it replaced with a crown (read more here)

I recently saw a patient who was waking each morning with mini-migraines. After sending him to the local dentist, it came to light that his molars were significantly damaged – worn down from grinding.

It turns out his headaches came on with interstate business trips, only to disappear upon his return.

The diagnosis? Bruxism caused by stress that was overworking his jaw during sleep, tensing his muscles and giving him bad headaches.


Stress can have an impact on your hormone levels which can negatively impact your body’s immune system.

It’s thought that a prolonged increase in cortisol, a hormone released during times of stress, can increase your susceptibility to infection. Ulcers can then form inside your mouth due to an imbalance of natural defence mechanisms.

Keeping your mouth clean and healthy helps ulcers heal once they’ve reared their ugly heads. Employing stress reduction techniques can help keep them at bay.

Gum Disease

Also known as periodontal disease, gum disease is a bacterial infection that causes your gums to become inflamed, red and occasionally bleed. Bad breath is also an unpleasant symptom.

The build-up of plaque around the base of your teeth is the primary cause of gum disease.

During times of stress, people tend to struggle with daily routines. This can be due to any number of factors, including sleep deficit and perceived lack of time.

Your oral health regime is often the first to be compromised.  With a lack of teeth brushing and regular flossing, gum disease is just waiting to happen.


Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders can be directly affected by stress and vice versa. It can be the classic chicken and egg situation.

Put simplistically, your TMJ is essentially a hinge that connects your jaw to your temporal bones. The TMJ is known to be one of the more complex human joints, operated by a series of muscles, ligaments and tissue.

Bruxism and TMJ disorders are closely related. Grinding or clenching teeth for extended periods, such a while you’re sleeping can put undue strain on your TMJ, leading to headaches, jaw locking, earaches, plus more.

Reduce Stress & Help Your Oral Health

I advise patients on a range of stress relieving techniques depending on their individual circumstances. Some of these include:

  • Taking a break from alcohol and sometimes coffee
  • Eating balanced meals
  • Exercising as much as practical
  • Taking time out of your day
  • Going to bed at the same time each night, preferably 8 or 9 hours before you have to get up
  • Talking to someone you can trust – they’ve all been there!

The most important factor in getting your stress levels down is to start making positive change. There’s usually no right or wrong starting point.

If you are having difficulty getting your stress under control, seeing your GP is a good place to start talking about your options. Seeking professional counselling or medications are sometimes necessary.

A long-term approach to stress reduction is the key to reducing the impact it can have on your oral health.

Having a healthy mouth can also affect your overall health. Brushing, flossing and regular dental checkups are beneficial to your overall body's health. Read more about it here.

Dr Elaine Sung is a local GP and owner of Doctors of South Melbourne. (click here for linkHer areas of special interest include mental health and complex health needs.