Decaying Teeth, Localised Periodontal Disease and Stress
Decaying Teeth, Localised Periodontal Disease and Stress
It was 1936 when Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye brought the word ‘stress’ into the medical realm. It was an accidental discovery that took another four decades to drop into the vernacular and stay there.
With balls. At least since 1988.
Fifty years on, stress, or anxiety or depression is a regular topic of conversation. Because fifty years on, regular life is much more stressful. Everyone suffers stress. Stress is random, unpredictable, anticipatory – and in harmony with good health when it’s dealing with the everyday of life and what it brings.
It’s when the stress response is incompatible with the level or frequency of stimuli that things can become very difficult.
János Hugo Bruno ‘Hans’ Selye was a biochemistry research assistant at McGill University, Montreal when he incidentally noticed that across all experiments, subject rats showed signs of adrenal enlargement, thymus and lymph node shrinkage, and stomach ulceration when they were exposed to prolonged negative stimulation. It was irrelevant as to whether the stressor was extreme cold, surgical injury, shock, excessive food or constant exercise, the rats displayed a coordinated series of physiological reactions over time of continued duress.
Regardless of the type of stressor, the same pattern of response would occur. So although stress had been considered part of the human condition, Selye was the first identify the impact of stress as a universal patient response to illness. He defined stress as a “response of the body to any demand, whether it is caused by, or results in, pleasant or unpleasant conditions.”
Stress comes in many forms. That stress itself isn’t always negative is a connotation we probably know, but it never seems like that – particularly when you’re stressed. It was indeed Selye who pointed out in 1974 that not all stress is damaging. He maintained that stress can be a positive, motivating force, associated with performance, uplifting emotions and robust health.
Selye coined this type of stress eustress (from the Greek eu meaning ‘good’). It’s a moderate sensation that’s highly beneficial in challenging situations – which is basically anything that tests us: exams, interviews, anything involving an element of personal performance. Research shows that moderate stress enhances knowledge and information recall.
The beauty of stress in those situations is that it kicks you in the pants to rise to the challenge. Other times it can punch you in the face and lay you right out.
Which according to statistics, is how the majority of us are feeling.
According to the 2022 assessment by The Australian Psychological Society on wellbeing, 72% of those surveyed admitted to stress affecting their physical health. 64% cited stress as the primary reason for experiencing adverse changes in their psychological and emotional fitness.
Science proves that chronic, low-grade inflammation is a silent killer. It contributes to many conditions, including cardiovascular disease, arthritis, cancer and type 2 diabetes. In fact medical research estimates that as much as 90% of illness and disease is triggered by stress responses.
Science also proves that persistent and long-term stress not only creates physical inflammation in the body, but it actually rewires your brain. Higher-order parts show less activity because the primal brain area is working on survival. They’re changes that in only some instances may be reversible – it’s all very dependent on the duration and type of stress, and the point in life it occurs.
Although it carries a negative connotation, stress is of benefit when it’s a motivator. Which is basically what it’s meant to be. A driver. Not a crazy passenger that took over the wheel.
With recent research showing the brain-and-body link between individual teeth and organs, discovering the impact that stress has on teeth and gums is less surprising than inevitable.
Just ask a bruxism sufferer.
Grinding your teeth is both a neuromuscular and dental disorder, more often than not a symptom of stress. Certainly it can be a side effect of particular types of medication, and sleep apnea is also a cited cause, but for most it’s the physical expression of a system under stress.
How does stress do what it does to us?
The specific human reaction in response to a trigger has three successive phases: alarm, resistance, coping – and corresponding that is the activation of the catabolic processes i.e. the chemical or enzymatic reactions involved in the breakdown of material, whether it be proteins, acids, sugars; pretty much anything in the human body. The nervous system is affected, which then has any number of consequences – digestive, cognitive, circulatory .. again, pretty much everything biological gets a nudge.
In a nutshell there’s a decrease in immunocompetence. Then competence. Then everything else.
The perception of threat then requires what’s referred to as ‘secondary appraisal’, which is the assessing of options and the belief in how effective (or not) they will be. Naturally, any sense of endangerment is less catastrophic with the realisation something can be done about it. These phases and processes all happen and over any amount of time, including that split second when a car’s heading straight for you.
Perception is the reason people define and respond differently to stress. Self-efficacy is a core fortifier in the practicalities and mechanics of coping well with stress; whether they be instantaneous, or slow-burn situations that are firing a neurological response.
What Selye also discovered was ‘general adaptation syndrome’ – when the body’s succession from the trigger is not alarm, resistance and coping, but rather alarm, resistance and exhaustion.
Seems that that’s we’re a lot of us are at. Living like the planet we’re on: climate and pandemic stressed, with huge changes in behaviour and intensity.
No wonder our body reacts.
Sometimes by drinking too much coffee. Or drinking too much. Smoking, with more smoking. Getting prescription medication. Or non-prescription. Not eating. Or stuffing ourselves with junk food.
Things that we all know are primarily bad for our teeth, and none of which help our state of mind.
No matter how we think we’re convincing ourselves.
The increased toxicity and inflammation these products and pastimes create does little but magnify the psychological and physical imbalances we’re already experiencing. It just stresses stress out.
No wonder our body reacts. Again? Still? Hard to tell. It’s exhausting.
The most common, noncommunicable, chronic, yet preventable oral disease is tooth decay. It happens because of an annoyingly complex interaction between carbohydrates, acid-producing bacteria and saliva. Stress, and all its derivatives – however they’re labelled – make us less likely to make healthy dietary choices, or have the energy and diligence to brush properly and regularly.
Let alone make an appointment for the dentist.
They’re the specifics that make it a no-brainer that stress is a precursor to decay. What’s worth understanding is that studies now show a strong association between cortisol levels – a mental stress biomarker – and decaying or decayed teeth.
Periodontal disease is also one of the most prevalent oral issues in the world. Almost 50% of the global adult population suffer from it, and it too is responsible for other chronic issues and declining health. Research confirms a link between mental stress and periodontitis in 40-60-year-olds, and the elderly.
Again, and in relation to the severity of the disease, elevated levels of psychological stress biomarkers were found in saliva, and also in gingival crevicular fluid.
Studies show not only the impact that changes in mental health have on our teeth and gums, current research also confirms the reverse: that changes in oral health impacts our mental health.
Try wrapping your head around that. And see your dentist.
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