The Mouth-Brain Connection

You might think how you feel or think has no bearing on your teeth and gums. It’s understandable. Most people think that emotional well-being and what’s going on in your mouth are separate areas of concern. 

However, when it comes to the link between mental health and oral health, most people are wrong.

Researchers have discovered a significant link between oral health and mental health. It’s another part of the Mouth-Body Connection®; only, in this case, you might call it the Mind-Body Connection. The link is so significant, it inspired one researcher to assert in his 2016 paper that there can be “no mental health without oral health.”

It’s a Relationship That Goes Both Ways

The relationship between oral health and mental health goes both ways. From one side, the idea of dental treatment can inspire mental health disorders, like anxiety and the deep fear of going to the dentist, which is called dentophobia. On the other side, side effects from mental illness can lead to dental diseases like enamel erosion, cavities, and gum disease.

If left untreated, these dental diseases can lead to tooth loss. Research indicates that people with severe mental illness are almost three times more likely to lose all their teeth compared to people with good mental health.[i]

Let’s look at how your oral health affects mental health and vice versa. 

"people who develop gum disease are also at an increased risk of developing anxiety and depresion"

The Effect of Your Oral Health on Your Mental Health

When you have poor oral health, it can affect your mental health. For example, one study from England last year suggests that people who develop gum disease are also at an increased risk of developing anxiety and depression.[i] It can also reduce your quality of life.

WebMD suggests that poor oral health can cause worsening mental health. For example, patients that feel embarrassed about their teeth might find it challenging to be around others when they eat and drink. To avoid these situations, patients might withdraw from social conditions, negatively affecting their well-being. [ii]

Here are a few more ways that your oral health affects your mental health:

Lower Self Esteem

When you are ashamed of your smile because of poor dental health, it can affect how you think about yourself and damage your self-esteem. One study indicates that this is particularly acute for adolescents, who are preoccupied with physical appearance. [iii]  

Anxiety 

For some people, their poor oral health and gum disease can make them nervous about interacting with others because they don’t want people to notice or smell bad breath, making them feel anxious during social situations. Also, if they are already nervous about dental treatment, the prospect of a more serious dental treatment could intensify their anxious feelings, pushing them deeper into dentophobia.

Depression

There is a strong link between people with gum disease and those with depression. Also, it’s cyclical, meaning the stress from depression can make it harder for you to fight off infections, which can worsen your oral health, and so on.[iv] Moreover, sometimes the feelings of isolation that people feel from others because they are embarrassed about their smile can also strengthen feelings of depression.

Physical Pain 

Untreated cavities can hurt. As the infection increases, it leads to pain in the root and can eventually infect the gums. Teeth that are decayed and untreated are also more sensitive to hot and cold. 

Eating Disorder

When people have an eating disorder like bulimia, the harsh stomach acid left behind on the teeth can cause dental erosion. Also, these patients have low levels of calcium in their system, which isn’t doing anything good for the teeth. [5]

The Effect of your Mental Health on Your Oral Health

The relationship between mental health and oral health works both ways. If your oral health can affect your mental health, then mental health affects oral health, too. In other words, these two areas are connected and influence each other. 

Your mental health affects your overall health, which includes oral health. For example, some mental health conditions cause people to lose interest in personal hygiene and oral health maintenance. Others might cause them to choose coping behaviors like smoking, which adversely affects oral health (and overall health). Therefore, as their mental health disorder worsens, their oral health will too. However, the good news is that improving your oral health can also help improve your mental health. 

Let’s take a closer look at some specific ways that mental health affects oral health. [v]

Neglecting Oral Care

Mental health conditions can make it difficult for people to maintain their home care routine. For example, with depression, people might be too tired or disinterested in self-care to brush and floss daily.

Diet

When dealing with a mental health disorder, people might consume too many sugary foods or beverages or rely on convenience foods that lack the nutrients necessary to maintain good oral health for their teeth and gums. 

Substance Abuse

People struggling with mental health often seek relief through drug or alcohol use, both of which have adverse effects on oral health, including contributing to gum disease and, in some cases, oral cancer.

Skipping the Dentist

Some mental health problems make it difficult for people to go to the dentist, causing them to avoid or miss their regular appointments.

In addition, mental health disorders can affect oral health in a few more ways. Many prescription drugs used to manage mental health conditions cause dry mouth. When there is less saliva in the oral cavity, people are more susceptible to cavities, have problems keeping their dentures, and are prone to yeast infections and dysgeusia, which distorts the person’s sense of taste. Also, people experiencing mental health disorders might complain of chronic orofacial pain, like pain in their jaw, a sensation like their mouth is burning, or tooth pain that has no other cause. In some cases, this pain can be a result of grinding teeth, which can cause a temporomandibular disorder (TMD) that requires treatment for relief.[vi]

Adressing oral matters can have " a critical affect on a pe4rson's mental health" and vice versa

How To Manage Your Mental Health

Smile Generation-trusted dentists are committed to helping connect patients to the right resources for their total health. Mental health clinicians are also eager to work with their oral health counterparts toward the shared goal of whole-person health. The National Council for Mental Wellbeing consulted with dentists to develop a toolkit for dentists, psychiatrists, and substance abuse specialists to integrate their care. 

“Emerging evidence suggests that more coordinated or integrated oral, mental health and substance use treatment services can increase access to needed care, improve patient outcomes and potentially reduce health care costs,” the council authors wrote.

If you think you might be experiencing problems with your mental health, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can test for physical connections to your mental health symptoms and refer you to a licensed expert to help you manage the emotional relationships associated with mental health.

Regarding your oral health, Here are some steps you can take to keep your teeth and gums healthy:[i]

  • Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste
  • Clean between your teeth with dental floss or an interdental brush twice a day
  • Stop smoking
  • Reduce alcohol use or stop drinking alcohol
  • Cut back on sugary foods and drinks
  • See your dentist regularly
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet

Speak with a Dentist

Patients can have difficulties taking care of their dental issues if they suffer psychologically. Conversely, patients in pain from oral health problems or tooth loss have issues managing their mental health. Addressing oral matters can have a critical effect on a person’s mental health — and vice-versa.

Your path to healing starts with communication. Be sure to talk to your dentist if you feel embarrassed about your teeth or smile, or are in pain from something happening in your mouth. They can help determine what is causing the problem and provide an actionable plan to remedy it. 

In addition, be sure to know more about your health history when you come to the dentist. It might not seem relevant to you at first, but you might be surprised to learn that something you were born with has a lot to do with what is happening with your mental and oral health. It’s all part of the Mouth-Body Connection®, and knowing your health history can make a significant difference in your overall health.

Find your trusted local dentist today

[i] Kisely S. No Mental Health without Oral Health. Can J Psychiatry. 2016;61(5):277-282. doi:10.1177/0706743716632523

[i] Melore C. Gum Disease Increases Risk for Mental Health Problems By Nearly 40 Percent Study Shows. ktla.com. https://ktla.com/news/nationworld/gum-disease-increases-risk-of-developing-mental-health-problems-by-nearly-40-study-shows/. Published 2021. Accessed May 4, 2022.

[ii] What to Know About Oral Health and Mental Health. WebMD.com. https://www.webmd.com/oral-health/what-to-know-about-oral-health-and-mental-health. Published 2021. Accessed May 4, 2022.

[iii] Kaur P, Singh S, Mathur A, et al. Impact of Dental Disorders and its Influence on Self Esteem Levels among Adolescents. J Clin Diagn Res. 2017;11(4):ZC05-ZC08. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2017/23362.9515

[iv] The connection between oral and mental health. Grinmag.com. https://www.grinmag.com/archive/en/ddnj/2017/wellness/oral-and-mental-health-connection/. Published 2022. Accessed May 4, 2022.

[v] Mental illness and oral health. Oral Health Foundation. https://www.dentalhealth.org/mental-illness-and-oral-health. Published 2022. Accessed May 4, 2022.

[vi] Hudson J. How mental health affects oral health. Nature.com. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41406-021-0225-3. Published 2021. Accessed May 4, 2022.

[i] What to Know About Oral Health and Mental Health. WebMD.com. https://www.webmd.com/oral-health/what-to-know-about-oral-health-and-mental-health. Published 2021. Accessed May 4, 2022.