For a city with upwards of 280 days of sunshine a year, Los Angeles has a bad reputation as one of the more stressful places to live in the country. The traffic, the high-powered jobs, the cost of living, the traffic — L.A. has a way of taking its toll on you.
That kind of sustained stress can wreak havoc on your body and personal life, but one area where not many people expect to see the effects is in their mouths. Apparently, there’s good reason to start looking, though.
Researchers at the Tufts School of Dental Medicine are developing a theory — based on a number of studies — that places the body’s natural stress-related hormone response at the center of our medical understanding of gum disease.
Here’s the standard version of how mouths develop gingivitis, the most prominent form of gum disease: plaque-forming bacteria grow in hard-to-reach places in the mouth, especially in between teeth and sandwiched between teeth and the gum line. The bacteria eat food particles that get lodged in the mouth, and release an acid byproduct that wears down teeth’s protective enamel coating.
The acid is what causes cavities, but these nasty invaders also secrete a series of more targeted toxins to damage the gums, opening up spaces for other bacteria to grow.
This is what causes gum disease, which in turn exposes teeth and makes them more vulnerable to cavities.
Your body can sense when it falls under attack in this way, and releases various hormones — cortisol, most prominently — to trigger an immune response. In small doses, the “stress” reaction is beneficial for health. Enlarged capillaries allow more white blood cells to enter the targeted area and attack bacteria, preventing infection and, in the case of the mouth, gum disease.
In excessive or prolonged doses, however, stress hormones damage cells and hurt the body. The immune inflammatory response defeats its purpose and begins attacking healthy tissue, including the gums. General emotional stress, argue the researchers, actually makes your mouth more susceptible to attack, infection, and disease.
So far, no causal relationship can be proven, though there is a significant body of research backing up the claims. The challenge for researchers is that emotional stress is difficult to isolate from the habits typically associated with it: poor, sugary diet, lack of sleep, alcohol and cigarette consumption, and less attention to brushing and flossing habits, all of which can be linked to mouth disease to one degree or another.
Going forward, studies may be conducted in which patients are treated with general relaxation and stress-reduction therapies, or products may be developed with anti-inflammatory components.
Whatever the result of the research, though, it’s hard to imagine how taking a load off could hurt.