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stressed out personAs we mentioned last time, stress may increase your chances of developing poor oral health.

Recent research out of Tufts University shows that emotional and oral health are connected, as both bruxism (teeth grinding) and gum disease may be triggered by stress.

Stress can even the most oral-health conscious person to become lax about oral hygiene. Ineffective flossing and brushing allows bacteria to build up in your mouth.

Consider: More than 150 species of bacteria live in a person’s mouth. As many as a billion bacteria can cover the surface of a tooth in forming biofilm (plaque). That bacteria releases toxins whose goal, says Tufts professor Evangelos Papathanasiou, “is to create more space so more bacteria can form.”

Those toxins attack your gums, creating holes where the bacteria live and reproduce. In turn, your gums swell. Your body, trying to reduce the irritants, may actually hurt itself.

In a perfect world, immune cells and bacteria are in balance and thus protect teeth and gums. At a certain point, however, immune cells become so numerous that they begin to inflame tissue and hasten disease rather than prevent it—the same way an allergic reaction can cause the body more harm than good. At this point, gingivitis, which is reversible, gives way to bone loss around teeth and full-blown periodontitis, which is not.

Fueling inflammation are the hormones that spike when you’re stressed. One of these is cortisol, which helps you deal by increasing your energy, memory, and pain tolerance. But while it may sound like there’s only an upside, it, too, can cause problems.

When cortisol is produced peripherally in the gums, it stimulates mast cells to produce more proteins, simultaneously increasing inflammation and the progression of periodontal disease.

What’s more, gum disease increases your chances of developing infection elsewhere in your body.

The oral cavity works as a continuous source of infectious agents, and its state often reflects succession of systemic pathologies and various aspects affecting the disease progression must be considered before planning a true treatment plan.

There also appears to be a link between stress and bruxism, which can further put your gums at risk. Bruxism is the habit – often unconscious – of grinding teeth, which some have suggested may be a coping mechanism for stress. It can also do a real number on your teeth and gums. Not only can it wear down the teeth and damage enamel; the excess pressure inflames your gums, as well.

Even after all that, it’s important to remember that not all stress is bad. Sometimes it helps you survive. Your stress response can help you rescue a kitten or finish the annual report before the deadline.

But stress shouldn’t consume your life. Most health conditions linked to stress happen when you are exposed to daily pressure, known as chronic stress:

This is stress resulting from repeated exposure to situations that lead to the release of stress hormones. This type of stress can cause wear and tear on your mind and body. Many scientists think that our stress response system was not designed to be constantly activated. This overuse may contribute to the breakdown of many bodily systems.

While chronic stress is not good, you can control how you respond or cope. Typically, there are two response types: 1) emotion-focused coping and 2) problem-based coping. Emotion-focused coping may address your emotional needs and keep your mind off of the experience, but it’s often at the expense of finding a solution. In comparison, problem-based coping searches for practical solutions, but often does not do enough to soothe and calm your emotions.

Both responses may be appropriate, but again, it depends on your situation.

The main thing is that coping skills matter. One study found that poor coping skills may double your likeliness of developing a periodontal disorder. Another found that coping style can affect the severity of gum disease.

But again, how you deal depends on your specific situation and needs. Still, some general guidelines may be helpful to most anyone:

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