Are You a Grinder?

As human beings, our bodies are profoundly affected by stress from the environment around us. Many times, the effects of this stress can manifest in surprising and subconscious ways that can be compromising to our total health. One of these effects, teeth grinding, is now estimated to affect over 40 million Americans, including both adults and children. Known as bruxism, from the Greek word for “gnashing of teeth,” the long history of this oral habit is even referenced in the Bible, where “wailing and gnashing of teeth” is recorded 7 times in the New Testament and refers to the sorrow, pain, anger and remorse of those who experience hell.

(Moderate bruxism)

With the continued news of uncertain political upheaval, war and violence in the Middle East, the fallout from a monumental 9.0 earthquake and devastating Tsunami in Japan, followed by an unparalleled radiological disaster from several critically damaged Japanese nuclear  reactors, combined with the continued domestic stress of a staggering national debt, weak national economy, and persistent high unemployment – a “snowballing” of stress is fueling a corresponding increase in teeth grinding, a damaging parafunctional oral habit that most people are unaware they are doing, with only 5% developing symptoms that prompt them to seek treatment early. Most people will continue to wear their natural teeth down, causing a loss of proper dental function, tooth sensitivity, broken dental fillings, and damage to the jaw joint (TMJ), causing weakness and even arthritis to this joint in severe cases.

(Advanced bruxism)

If you are experiencing tightening or pain in the jaw muscles in the morning, an unexplained headache, a wearing of your natural teeth, broken fillings, injured gums, or grinding sounds while sleeping that are observed by (or disturbing to) the person lying next to you, you should see a dentist immediately.

There are a number of professional treatment options for bruxism. Many times a custom nightguard fabricated by your dentist can relieve the discomfort and damage that can occur from teeth grinding. Biofeedback devices, as well as Botox injections, provide relief to over-functioning muscles (neuromuscular spasm) occurring in the head and neck region. Massage and physical therapy are often incorporated to relax tired muscles and reduce stress. Beyond these treatments, certain antidepressant medications, specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor drugs (Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil) have been shown to sometimes induce teeth grinding as a secondary effect. Your dentist should evaluate the use of these medications if bruxism is observed and consult with the prescribing physician.

Here are my at-home A, B, C and Ds that you can follow to control stress and alleviate the damaging effects of teeth grinding:

Aerobic exercise and fitness - A regular aerobic exercise and fitness program has been shown to produce a more competent immune system and circulatory system, increasing the body’s ability to cope with stress. It also helps to improve the rest you get and minimize disturbed sleep patterns.  

B-complex vitamins - Supplementing with B complex vitamins has shown a significant effect on many psychological processes, with vitamin B5 or pantothenic acid having the greatest ability to control teeth grinding. All B vitamins interact with each other, and deficiencies of B vitamins have been linked to severe psychological stress including depression and panic attacks.

Vitamin C, calcium and magnesium - Vitamin C, the “king of the vitamin world,” is essential for making the key neurotransmitter dopamine, which regulates mood and the pleasure response, as well as controlling smooth muscle movements. Vitamin C also affects the manufacture of adrenaline and non-adrenaline, which are used by the adrenal glands, that affect our response to stress, as well as the nervous system. The proper balance of calcium and magnesium is also important for a healthy and properly functioning nervous system, and a deficiency in the balance of these minerals can lead to spasm, cramps and muscle tension.

Devote a regular time for meditation and prayer - The effects of quieting the mind and body have had many positive effects on the body’s response to stress. In fact, regular prayer and meditation have demonstrated profound psychological and physiological benefits, including a more highly functioning nervous system, eliciting a “relaxation response” in the amygdala, a small almond-shaped part of the brain that controls our limbic system, the center of our emotions for self-preservation, love and friendship, while keeping fear and anxiety at bay.