Depression and Dental Health: Exploring the Connection, and How to Get Back on a Healthy Track

The body works in mysterious ways. For most of us, it’s truly impossible to imagine all of the complex ways our individual body parts and systems work together in the bigger picture of our overall health and well-being. That includes our state of mind.

It is a well-known fact among physicians and medical experts that various aspects of our physical health play dramatic roles in our mental well-being. From the microbiome in our guts to — you guessed it — the state of our teeth and gums, how well our bodies function has a direct effect on how well our brains work. Not surprisingly, the same is also true in reverse.  

Depression and dental health are profoundly connected in that way. Keeping your mouth healthy is a vital part of self-care that, when neglected, can be a contributing factor for depression. On the other hand, poor dental health is also a common, negative consequence of the mental illness. Luckily, a focus on caring for your physical and emotional self can improve both your dental and mental health.    

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Poor Dental Health as an Indirect Result of Depression

Poor oral hygiene is a common occurrence among people with mental illness. In fact, mentally ill adults are three times more likely to have teeth removed. Additionally, a variety of other factors associated with depression can result in problems like tooth decay and periodontal (gum) disease, including:

Stress – Increased levels of cortisol facilitates the progress of periodontal disease. Stress can also lead to jaw disorders and muscle tension that can cause pain and restrict jaw movement.

Substance use – Some people with depression participate in activities like smoking cigarettes, alcohol consumption, and drug use as coping mechanisms. In addition to being unhealthy strategies for dealing with depression, substance use can lead to dental disease, oral cancer, and other complications.

Medication side effects – Medications used to treat depression can cause dry mouth, increasing the risk for cavities, gum disease, and infections such as thrush, tongue inflammation, mouth soreness, and inflammation of the parotid gland.

However, these are not the only depression-related habits and circumstances that contribute to poor oral health. Read on to learn more about the connection between depression and self-care, and how it can impact your dental health.

The Connection Between Depression and Poor Overall Self-Care

When it comes to your mental health, there are a variety of social and environmental factors at play. Relationships, loneliness, work, trauma, and illness all contribute to depressive episodes. In addition to these stressors, biology and genetics are believed to be a factor in approximately 40 percent of cases.

So, poor self-care did not cause your depression, and it won’t fix it. However, the two are inextricably intertwined. According to research, the area of the brain responsible for executive functioning is impaired in people with depression. Executive functioning includes many of the skills required to prioritize and perform self-care, such as:

  • Attention
  • Decision making
  • Emotional control and functioning
  • Foresight
  • Flexible thinking
  • Insight and judgment
  • Planning and prioritizing
  • Reasoning and recall
  • Self-monitoring
  • Willpower and wisdom
  • Memory

In other words, there is a neurobiological reason people with depression struggle to care for themselves. They are not lazy or lacking motivation, and they are not weak.

There is good news: Improvements in one can lead to improvements in the other.

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How to Get Back on Track

No matter where you are in your mental health journey, the key to getting back on track with your dental health care is the same. First, start small. Starting out, set simple goals to improve your self-care habits, like brushing twice every day. Then, once you’ve conquered the basics, you can slowly build momentum, adding tasks like flossing and scheduling a check-up.

Ultimately, your goal should be a well-rounded routine that includes a proper diet, basic hygiene, necessary dental work, and regular check-ups. Each of these categories consists of many individual components.

A Healthy Diet

For the longest time, we’ve been told the key to a tooth- and gum-friendly diet is avoiding sugar, and it’s true. Sweet food and drinks, while delicious, are detrimental to your mouth health, because the bacteria in your mouth eat the sugar and create acid as a waste product. That acid causes cavities. However, sugar is not the only culprit. Crackers, which break down in the mouth almost immediately, also feed the bacteria and create excess acid.

You can also use food to improve your mouth health. Chewing gum with xylitol to clean teeth, swishing with water after you eat sticky foods, and eating cheese after a meal to help neutralize acid are just a few of the ways to minimize the effects of sugar on your oral health. You can also facilitate the natural process of remineralization by ensuring you produce enough saliva, using fluoride, getting enough vitamin D, and even indulging in antioxidant-rich dark chocolate.  

Basic Hygiene

A good dental health routine begins with regular brushing and flossing. Brush twice per day — once right before bed and once at another time during the day — but avoid brushing right after eating when the enamel that protects your teeth is weak. Floss once per day in the evening. While mouthwash isn’t a replacement for basic hygiene practices, it can reach areas brushing and flossing can’t. If you do choose to use a mouth rinse, be sure to read the product instructions. Some ingredients may require a specific order of use to ensure the solution is as effective as it can be.

Dental Work

If you need a tooth filled or a crown replaced, don’t wait. Schedule the dental work you need in a timely fashion to avoid costlier and more complex work later. If you’re anxious about dental work, talk to your dentist or mental health professional. Many doctors offer conscious sedation or general anesthesia as an option, in addition to local anesthesia.

Regular Check-Ups

When it comes to dental health, prevention is key. Regular check-ups ensure your mouth and gums remain healthy and allow your dentist to catch any problems early. So, don’t just go when something is wrong. Make your dental health a priority moving forward by scheduling regular cleanings every six months.

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Good Dental Health is a Reason to Smile

Teeth you can be proud of makes it easier to smile, and smiling makes you happier and healthier. Smiling boosts your mood and improves your immune system. Furthermore, the act of smiling in and of itself causes your brain to release dopamine and serotonin — the chemicals that make you feel happier and stress-free. Not to mention, a good-looking smile, fresh breath, and all of the perks that come along with good dental health make you more confident.

More importantly, your dental health plays a vital role in your overall well-being. Gum disease has been connected to heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory infections. It may even make it more difficult to become pregnant. As if that weren’t enough to inspire you to keep up with good dental hygiene practices, poor oral health may increase your risk of dementia.

For people with depression, a healthy mouth is not the first thing on their minds. It is, however, an important aspect of a healthy self-care routine, a vital factor in staying physically healthy, and a key component in your self-esteem. So, while you work on getting your depression under control, be sure take care of yourself by taking care of your teeth and gums. You’ll be glad you did.