As a Naples periodontist, I have the privilege of seeing most of my patients on an ongoing basis. Many of my patients have been coming to me for years and over the years I get to know them. I hear about developments in their personal lives, their families, businesses, vacations, kids getting married, new grandkids and many other things.
I sometimes also hear about events that are more unfortunate. These include economic issues, health issues, relationship issues, divorce and the loss of loves ones or close friends. We all have events in our lives that have made us unhappy, and brought psychological stress with them.
I’ve always been interested in the ways that stress affect oral health. In dental school I wrote a research paper on stress and periodontal disease. During my research, I found that the physical body reacts strongly to prolonged psychological stress by releasing certain mediators that among other things induce inflammation.
Although the cause and effect mechanisms are not completely understood, stress is now commonly assumed to have a negative effect on health.
What Is Stress?
Stress is a response to a perceived threat. In the animal kingdom mammals occasionally experience threats in their struggle to survive, usually from predators making a violent attempt to kill them for food. Their brains perceive this threat through the senses and in an effort to survive excrete adrenaline, cortisol and many other hormones to give the body instantaneous strength, speed and protection from pain.
This is commonly known as the “fight or flight” response.
In the modern world human beings no longer worry about being killed by predators, but we worry about a lot of other things. In our busy lives as human beings, many of these stressors are continuous and ongoing. The daily round of life initiates stress.
Our brain is ancient in origin, and in some people it responds to modern stress in the same way it used to thousands of years ago. This response affects our immunology, neurology, endocrinology and psychology.
What Kind of Events Cause Major Stress? Researchers have given specific events a score based on the relative amount of stress they may cause:
Death of a spouse – 100 points
Divorce – 73
Death of close relative – 63
Sickness – 53
Marriage – 50
Loss of work – 47
Retirement – 45
Birth – 39
Moving – 20
Christmas – 12
Holmes and Rahe (1967)
Why Is Stress So Bad for Us?
The first reason that stress is bad for our health is that it changes our behavior. Human beings respond to stress by coping. Everyone has different coping mechanisms but everyone performs at a reduced level when we are under stress.
In my profession, I’ve noticed that patients under stress tend to have inflammed gums that are red and bleed, and are at a higher risk for periodontal disease. It has been shown in studies that people with high stress levels also neglect their oral hygiene . It is important that we seek healthy ways to reduce and relieve stress such as eating healthy, exercising, getting plenty of sleep and focusing on maintaining a positive attitude. Gum disease, if left untreated, can lead to tooth loss so make sure to have your teeth and gums checked routinely.