How Mental Illness and Teeth Grinding are Related

How Mental Illness and Teeth Grinding are Related

The Brux Doc
9 minute read

Mental Illness and Teeth Grinding (Bruxism) At Night

Bruxism, more commonly referred to as teeth grinding, is characterized by grinding, gnashing, and teeth clenching. Teeth grinding can occur multiple times during one’s sleep, contributing to sleep disruptions and damage to the teeth.


While teeth grinding typically occurs in the sleep cycle stages before deep sleep, some people may also experience it when they are awake. If this happens, it is an unintentional habit, just as it is an unconscious one as you sleep. However, when it happens while one is awake, a person will usually notice it and stop within a matter of seconds.


Who Experiences Bruxism and What Causes It?

It is estimated that 10% of people grind their teeth at night. While certain lifestyle and medical factors can lead to teeth grinding, bruxism is now more widely recognized for its psychosocial and mental health aspects.


This tells us that more contributes to this percentage than the medical causes of bruxism. It also tells us that the prevalence of bruxism cannot merely be attributed to family history, either, even though a person with a family history of bruxism is up to 50% more likely to develop it.


Mental health conditions such as depression, stress, anxiety, sleep disorders, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and attention disorders can all contribute to the development of this damaging oral habit. And while 10% of the population may not seem like much, research suggests that this number will continue to rise due to some of these psychosocial aspects.


Bruxism and the Nervous System

Before a person begins to grind their teeth, they typically experience some of the same symptoms that people do in response to stress, like an increase in heart rate and brain activity. This shows how closely linked the body and mind are, as the nervous system and stress responses are tied to both physical and psychological aspects. 


For many people, experiencing jaw movements while they sleep does not lead to any significant problems. However, with teeth grinding, the pain, symptoms, and potential issues worsen. Once it starts, most people begin to experience symptoms like headaches, jaw pain, and tooth (temperature) sensitivity. The clenching and grinding can even begin to cause damage to any fillings or other dental work a person has.


The Damage of Teeth Grinding

Bruxism typically involves the canines and incisors moving against each other. This repetitive, lateral motion contributes to the loss of sharp biting surfaces and enamel. Healthy enamel is critical because it protects the teeth. So over time, teeth grinding can damage the teeth or even cause them to break.


Bruxism uses the same muscles we use to chew, which is why it can contribute to headaches, facial pain, and sometimes neck pain.


The Link Between Bruxism and Mental Health

In recent years, mental illnesses have grown more prevalent, impacting nearly one in every five adults in the United States. These numbers saw an ever greater spike with the COVID-19 pandemic. This comes as no surprise when you consider that stress was the most prevalent reaction amongst people throughout this past year.


Pandemic aside, stress is one of the biggest culprits in life that impacts several aspects of our mental and emotional health. But the impact of stress spreads beyond our mental and emotional wellbeing - it can severely impact the body, too. Bruxism is one such damaging way that stress and mental health conditions manifest. 


While stress is not inherently bad, the consistent firing of stress hormones in the body can be. When we encounter a stressful trigger in life, it is normal for our body to send signals that cause everything from our heart rates to our breathing to pick up speed. Persistent stress can lead to various mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. However, we were never meant to endure these symptoms for long.


Research shows that teeth grinders, also known as “bruxers,” experience more symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who do not grind their teeth. Teeth grinders also show a greater prevalence of anxiety disorders and clinical depression. Not to mention, a 2019 study shows that those who struggle with teeth grinding experience higher levels of stress hormones in their body. 


The Heavy Impact of Stress

One impact of stress that occurs in the body is the spike in adrenaline. Adrenaline works to move energy around in the body, even when you are not moving. This is why people can experience teeth grinding in their sleep - from the mobilized energy caused by stress and adrenaline.


Other stress-related chemicals like cortisol also have an impact, triggering the sympathetic nervous system that prompts stress’ physical responses. In other words, a person’s jaw can clench at night just as readily as their palms can sweat when stress hormones are in the picture.


Stress hormones also play a key role in the development of anxious thoughts. The problem with this is that it leads to a vicious cycle, where anxiety and worry also lead to stress. The emotions that proceed from stress and other emotions activate the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. So as you continue to cycle through these emotions from stress to worry or fear, the brain continues to trigger these harmful responses.


So how do we break the cycle before causing serious long-term damage to our oral health? 


No matter which symptoms a person experiences and what severity, bruxism has painful and damaging short and long-term impacts. If you are a teeth grinder, you need to explore the possible reasons and try to get to the root of it.


That said, you could have an underlying mental health condition that may explain your proneness to teeth grinding and not know it. This isn’t a time to attempt any self-diagnosis or compound your anxiety with this new information. The most important first step you can take for your health right now is to find more awareness of any symptoms of bruxism and, espeically, stress.

mental illness and teeth grinding infographic


Treatment Options for Teeth Grinding

There is no cure or medication for teeth grinding. Hence the importance of eliminating the problems that may be causing your condition. There are a few things you can do to address your bruxism, stress, and other unwanted symptoms:


- Things to avoid


First and foremost, there are a few conscious habits you can consider breaking to help break bruxism. Caffeine and alcohol can increase grinding, so avoid high concentrations of these where you can, especially at nighttime. Also, chewing gum can trigger the natural reflexes of the jaw, where grinding or clenching becomes engrained in your muscle memory.

- Relaxation techniques


Having a nighttime ritual to do before you sleep can minimize the impact of stress on your body and mind. Some helpful options include taking a hot bath, listening to calming music, and drinking herbal tea. As far as these three, you could do them all at once. A good time window for this ritual could be anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, so start small if you need to, and explore what helps.


Restorative yoga poses before bedtime can also help calm the nervous system, bringing your mind and body to a restful place before you sleep.


- Mindfulness and meditation


Consider adding a bedtime meditation into your nightly routine. Or make meditation a regular part of your day.


It’s worth noting that managing stress at bedtime isn’t necessarily more effective at alleviating your teeth grinding or stress. Stress can spill over from our nights into our days and days into our nights, which means mindfulness and mediation are valuable practices any time we do them.


These activities, along with yoga and psychotherapy, can help shut down the stress response in the body. Not only that, but mindfulness practices will help you cultivate more self and body awareness. The indirect benefit of this is that you might begin to notice your stress coming on before it attempts to take over. The more aware you become of your body, the better you will notice when something doesn’t feel right. In this way, awareness has the ability to reinforce the importance of taking care of ourselves.


Wear a custom teeth grinding mouth guard 

It is recommended for anyone with bruxism to wear a custom teeth night guard - in conjunction with building these healthy habits, of course. A teeth grinding guard is the most immediate way you can start alleviating the effects of teeth grinding on your health, as dental guards redistribute the forces caused by grinding.


While you can find teeth grinding guards at various drug stores to mold at home for a proper fit, a custom teeth night guard is ideal. Not only is a teeth grinding guard a great solution for protecting your teeth, but a custom guard will precisely fit the shape of your teeth and mouth. Especially if you already struggle with sleep due to bruxism, a better fit will ensure greater comfort for you to rest without distractions.


Acquiring a custom teeth grinding guard through a dentist or dental lab can be costly. For these reasons, the best solution for protecting your teeth and your wallet is to go through a trusted and experienced online retailer for a custom fit at a reasonable price.




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