I’ve always been aware of the strong relationship between dental health and mental health. Whether it is a damaged or missing tooth that causes social anxiety, or the major challenges in accessing dental for those struggling with psychiatric illness, there is a connection.
Smiling Makes You Healthier
Just flashing your pearly whites is good for your mental health. Studies have shown that the “feel good” neurotransmitters of dopamine, endorphins and serotonin are released every time you smile. It can actually lower heart rate and blood pressure, as well as reducing stress.
And its contagious. Research has demonstrated that smiling at someone activates the reward centres in the brain, and causes them to smile back.
Poor dental health and tooth alignment issues can affect speech, leading to social anxiety. Similarly, chronic bad breath is often related to oral hygiene issues, triggering feelings of low self-worth and limiting social connections.
And social connections are imperative to both physical and metal health. Those connections create a sense of belonging and purpose, provide increased levels of happiness and reduction of stress, along with improved self-esteem.
Many of my patients have spent a lifetime feeling self-concious about their smiles. It erodes confidence, causing them to smile and laugh less, or even cover their mouths when expressing happiness. It can impact job interviews, affect potential social opportunities and increase feelings of isolation.
An increasing amount of research is linking mental wellness to the flora found in the gut. Cortisol, anxiety and depression have all been linked to the bacteria in the gut. Digestion begins in the mouth, and the body’s ability to break down and digest nutrients is impacted by the ability to properly chew.
Chronic Mental Health Challenges
For patients facing serious mental health challenges, the struggle is even more intense. They often struggle to access adequate dental care. And a lifetime of psychiatric illness and possibly addiction has taken a toll on their dental health, creating serious and chronic issues. For patients with psychiatric disorders, it can be difficult for dentists to even treat the often complex issues found in their mouths. Loss of teeth and significant tooth decay affects appearance and self-image, limiting job opportunities and the potential to rebuild a life after an intense period of psychiatric illness.
What does this mean as a dentist? There is a direct link between what is happening in a patient’s mouth and in their mind. It affects confidence, happiness, gut health and total wellness. Dental care is not an afterthought to wellness, it is an integral piece of the puzzle.