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What to Know About Oral Health and Mental Health

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 29, 2021

Your mental health affects the health of your whole body, including your oral health. People who have mental health problems are more likely to have oral health conditions like teeth and gum problems. Good oral health also affects your overall health and can help improve your mental health.

Impact of Oral Health on Mental Health

Your oral and mental health are more closely connected than you might realize. Mental health disorders can lead to some coping habits, like smoking, that have a negative impact on oral health. Some people with mental health problems may also avoid or stop going to the dentist.

People with mental illnesses like anxiety and depression may engage in behaviors or have other problems caused by their illness that affect oral health, such as:

  • Loss of appetite, which can lead to causes poor nutrition
  • Eating or drinking too many sugary foods or beverages
  • Dental anxiety — fear of visiting the dentist
  • Low energy
  • Difficulty performing daily tasks like brushing their teeth
  • Pain
  • Alcohol use problems or drug use
  • Smoking
  • Dry mouth

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Poor nutrition. If you have anxiety, depression, or another mental illness, you might not feel like eating. You might also eat or drink too many sugary treats or beverages that make you feel better for a while but can cause tooth decay and cavities.

People with poor nutrition or eating disorders may have low levels of calcium. Loss of calcium can weaken the surface enamel of your teeth. Some eating disorders such as bulimia, in which the person vomits after eating, can damage the throat, teeth, and mouth. Bulimia can also lower the amount of saliva in the mouth, which can cause dry mouth and dental problems.

Burning mouth syndrome — a chronic, burning sensation on the tongue, the roof of the mouth, and the inside of the cheeks — can be a sign of poor nutrition, but it may also be caused by depression. Some people with depression may have good oral health and good nutrition but may have burning mouth syndrome.

Anxiety. Many people, including those without a mental health problem, have dental anxiety. If you have an anxiety disorder, you may avoid seeing a dentist regularly, which can lead to dental problems.

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Low energy. Depression or other mental illnesses can make you feel tired and unmotivated. You may find it hard to perform basic tasks like brushing and flossing your teeth. You may also feel too tired to prepare meals, which may lead to poor nutrition.

Pain. Depression and anxiety can make you more sensitive to pain. This can make you fearful or anxious about going to the dentist.

Alcohol, smoking, and other drugs. You are more likely to drink alcohol if you have depression and anxiety. Over time, drinking too much alcohol can lead to gum disease and possibly cause oral cancer.

Dry mouth. Some medications used to treat mental illnesses, such as antidepressant drugs, may cause side effects like dry mouth. A dry mouth may increase your risk for gum disease.

Oral Health Preventive Care

Poor oral health can make your mental health worse. You might feel embarrassed about your teeth, or you may find it hard to eat or drink when you’re with other people. This can cause you to avoid being with people, which can affect your well-being.

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Here are some steps you can take to keep your teeth and gums healthy:

  • 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

If your medication causes dry mouth, try xylitol mints. Xylitol is a natural sweetener that helps you make more saliva, and it can also help prevent plaque and cavities. Some helpful xylitol products include the following:

  • Mints
  • Gum
  • Toothpaste
  • Mouth spray

How to Manage Your Mental Health

You can take active steps to improve your mental health and well-being.

Exercise. Physical activity is not only good for your body but also good for your mental health. Exercise can increase your self-esteem, and it can change the chemicals in your brain to help improve your mood.

Connect with other people. Good relationships give you a sense of belonging, help you find support, and increase your self-worth. Here are some ways to build closer relationships:

  • Have lunch with a work friend
  • Go for a walk with a friend
  • Talk with your kids or your partner at dinner, with your phones and your TV turned off
  • Volunteer in your community

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Practice Mindfulness. Take time to slow down and notice your feelings and the sounds, smells, and sights that surround you throughout the day. Training your mind to be in the present moment can help you feel calm and focused and can give you a sense of well-being.

See your doctor. If you’re struggling with your mental health, talk to your doctor. Your doctor may prescribe medications to treat your problem or may help you find a therapist.

Oral health and mental health are closely connected. Make sure that you visit your dentist regularly, and if you have concerns about your mental health, don’t delay discussing your problem with your doctor. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Canadian Journal of Psychiatry: “No Mental Health Without Oral Health.”

NHS: "5 Steps to Mental Wellbeing," “Take Care of Your Teeth and Gums.”

Oral Health Foundation: “Mental Illness and Oral Health,” “Sugar Free Chewing Gum.”

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