Do you wake up in the morning with a sore jaw? Do you have frequent headaches? These can be signs of bruxism, which put simply, is the “clenching of the jaw and grinding of the teeth.” Although this can occur during the day, most experience it in their sleep. In this article, we’ll discuss what causes bruxism and share three strategies to stop grinding, relax your jaw, and save your teeth.
Most people develop bruxism due to stress or anxiety throughout their day, but it can develop from a variety of sources. It can be caused by crooked teeth or an abnormal bite, or sleep disorders like sleep apnea. Smoking, heavy alcohol and caffeine consumption, and depression can also be possible causes of teeth grinding according to The Bruxism Association.
This grinding habit can lead to physical symptoms like headaches, jaw stiffness, tightness in the neck and shoulders, and tightness when opening your mouth. Ultimately, bruxism can lead to cracks or premature loss of your teeth.
As dentists, we suggest using a mouthguard to protect your teeth at night. Come visit us at Greenspoint Dental to ensure your mouthguard is individually fitted to your mouth. However, we believe it’s important to address both the symptoms and the causes.
Most of the advice you’ll see online address the former rather than the latter (using protection like a mouthguard). WebMD goes as far as to suggest, “obtaining a prescription for muscle relaxants are among some of the options that may be offered.”
Although a mouthguard is a great first step, these strategies treat the symptoms, not the cause, so here are three strategies that focus on the source of the problem.
Strategy 1: Cut Down on Alcohol & Caffeine
Anytime you’re dealing with oral health, the foods you consume are going to play a huge role. When it comes to bruxism, the major culprits are alcohol and caffeine. Both can stimulate anxiety and disrupt your sleep patterns (major causes of bruxism).
Alcohol can impact the levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain which can increase anxiety when the buzz wears off. Caffeine stimulates the body’s “fight or flight” response, releasing catecholamines (like adrenaline) into the bloodstream, which can increase your anxiety or leave you feeling nervous or moody.
Both of these can affect your sleep at night. Caffeine has a half-life of around 5-to-8 hours. That means if you have a cup of coffee for an after-lunch boost, you can still have 100mg of caffeine in your system come bed time. Alcohol, on the other hand, tends to put you to sleep quickly, but keeps you from falling into a deep REM sleep, which is the most important part of feeling rested and recovered.
Speaking of a good night’s sleep…
Strategy 2: A Good Night’s Sleep
Sleep has such an impact on bruxism because of its effects on both our physical and emotional health. Research has shown that sleep can help or harm anything from our immune system, to decision making ability, to productivity, obesity, depression, and memory loss. And considering a majority of those who suffer from bruxism are clenching due to emotional stress, sleep is a good place to start.
In his book, Sleep Smarter: 21 Proven Tips to Sleep Your Way To a Better Body, Better Health and Bigger Success author Shawn Stevenson argues that the “number one thing you can do to improve your sleep quality immediately [is to] reduce the artificial blue light emitted by electronic screens.” These include television, tablets and your phone.
There’s a strong case to be made that this one change will improve your sleep, and therefore your stress and anxiety tremendously. As humans, we evolved biologically to respond to light. When the sun hit our ancestor’s eyelids, the light caused the release of hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline to increase feelings of alertness and help them wake up in the morning.
We are creating this same response with our devices right before bed, causing us to feel wired right before lying down
Stevenson suggests shutting down those devices at least 90 minutes before you intend to go to sleep.
Find a nightly ritual that works for you within that 90-minute window. Set aside time to take a bath and drink tea, or read a book. Take a few moments to reconnect with loved ones. This nightly ritual can drastically improve your sleep quality and help ease bruxism.
Strategy 3: Stress Reduction
Last, but not least, let’s talk about ways to reduce your stress during the day. Chances are, if you get more sleep and decrease alcohol and caffeine consumption, stress will lower and possibly reduce your bruxism as well.
But there are a few other strategies that have been shown to work in stress reduction. Try incorporating one of the following strategies into your day:
- Meditation: Simply put, meditation is the practice of mindfulness. It’s getting out of our own heads and it has been shown to have an impact on everything from reducing stress, improving sleep, increasing focus, and even improving our relationships.
- Go Outside: In her book, The Willpower Instinct Kelly McGonigal writes that spending just five minutes in nature (“that is, some activity outdoors, in the presence of trees, an open sky, water, a garden, or other natural scenery”) has been shown to decrease our stress and improve our mood.
- Exercise/Movement: Our ancestors walked between 12 and 20 miles daily. We evolved to be moving every single day, and exercise has been shown to impact almost every aspect of our physical and emotional health. This can be anything you enjoy doing, from riding your bike to sports to simply walking around your neighborhood. Movement can decrease stress, improve focus and attention span, improve immune function, and make us more compassionate.
- Connection: Humans are social beings. Time spent with those we enjoy is the single greatest investment to our health, and happiness that we can make. Our relationships help us become more resilient, relaxed and connected to a purpose larger than ourselves. It’s one of the most powerful things we can do for stress reduction.
- Practice Gratitude: Positive psychologist and Harvard professor, Shawn Achor writes that few things in life are as integral to our wellbeing as gratitude. Gratitude increases our energy, emotional intelligence, forgiveness ability, all while decreasing the probability of depression.” By taking a moment each day to appreciate what we have, our brains can rewire to be less stressed, less anxious, and less depressed.
At a glance, these strategies may seem to be irrelevant to dentistry and bruxism, but when we peel the layers back, stress reduction is one of the most beneficial things we can do for bruxism and our overall health.
Combining strategies for both symptoms (like getting a mouthguard) and causes (like stress reduction, diet changes, and sleep) will help your bruxism in both the long and short term. So come see us at Greenspoint today, and practice taking deep breaths and naps in the meantime.