How Poor Oral Health Affects Our Mental Well-being

wooden toothbrush

By Jane Sandwood

If you thought the worst thing about tooth decay or loss was the pain, think again! Our oral health and mental health are intricately related, and keeping both in optimal condition should be seen as an important preventive measure when it comes to our general health and well-being. Recently, the World Health Organization warned against the ‘compartmentalization’ of the mouth from the rest of the body and, indeed the mind. They noted that the state of our oral health not only affects the way we eat and enjoy life, but also our social wellbeing. From before our children even begin to grow teeth, caring for their oral health is vital. Daily brushing and flossing should be part of a family’s daily routine, simply because ignoring our oral health potentially opens the gates to mental illness.

Tooth Decay a Risk for Depression

Research indicates that there is a strong link between oral problems and depression. As stated by the WHO, it is very hard to remain positive and to feel good about life and the world around us when we are in pain, we cannot chew food well, we are subject to frequent and painful infections, and we lose our ability to sleep well. Indeed, one of the key pillars of good sleep is being pain-free, and the results of sleep deprivation are vast, ranging from a higher likelihood of anxiety and depression, to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Dental Problems among People Diagnosed with Depression

study undertaken at Deakin University showed that the more dental issues faced by a person with depression, the greater the severity of their mental illness. The researchers found that around 61% of people who faced oral pain regularly also had depression. Another subject that links oral and mental health, is inflammation. High-sugar diets promote inflammation, which is considered a risk factor for depression. However, excess sugar is also a bit factor for dental decay and gum disease, which can lead to tooth and bone loss and eventually, chronic pain.

Diet as a Preventive Tool against Dental Disease and Depression

The studies show the importance of consuming a Mediterranean-style diet comprising lean proteins, seasonal fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and Omega-3-rich fats (found in fatty fish, extra-virgin olive oil, and walnuts). From an early age, a sound diet should be seen as an important step to take to keep depression and oral disease at bay. This is because signs of tooth decay (such as pain and sensitivity to cold and hot food) can arise when cavities are already large. Sometimes, by the time we become aware of a cavity, the tooth either needs a root canal or extraction.

The Effect of Mental Illness on Oral Health

As mentioned above, when it comes to oral and mental health, the relationship is bidirectional and the root cause of both is difficult to pinpoint. Mental illness can affect oral health through its influence on lifestyle choices. Thus, a person with depression is more likely to smoke and less likely to quit – and smoking is a major cause of gum disease. People who are battling depression and anxiety can also lack the motivation they need to maintain a daily oral cleansing routine, or to visit their dentist regularly for check-ups and cavity filling. If they already have missing teeth or inflamed gums, it can exacerbate their ‘low moods’, since these factors can make it more difficult for people to socialize with others or to smile, talk, and eat with confidence.

Optimal Oral Health as an Important Way to Boost Mental Health

People battling mental illness should aim to prevent oral disease, but also visit their dentist to put and end to oral problems which are causing them pain and embarrassment. These days, many clinics offer services such as ‘implants in a day’, which enable gaps to be filled in almost instantly. There are also solutions for those with more than one tooth missing, with four-in-one implants proving a less costly yet effective way to fix a bite and put an end to mis-alignments in the mouth.

Oral Health Should Start Young

As mentioned above, from the time a child is an infant, care should already be taken to keep bacteria off gums with daily cleansing. In the United States, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) found that over 15% of kids aged five to 19 had untreated tooth decay. Steps can be taken to reduce the chances of developing cavities, including the use of sealants. Children should also be taught the right flossing technique by their dentist, since children often brush only the tooth, leaving one of the most crucial areas of the mouth (the gumline) unattended. Plaque can thus easily build up beneath the gum line, causing cavities that cannot be seen but which are very close to the root, thus risking tooth loss.

The WHO got it right when it asserted that our oral health is strongly linked to our overall health and wellbeing. Depression and anxiety can affect our oral hygiene and habits, but dental problems can also exacerbate or trigger mental issues. To protect our children, daily cleaning with the right technique is key, as is visiting a pediatric dentist during a child’s infancy, to spot any potential problems and learn important preventive measures to be taken.


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