Did you catch the terrific article Dr. Mercola posted last week on the science of the relationship between positive emotions and health? (If you didn’t, go check it out now. We’ll wait for you.)
Yet all too often in such discussions, oral health tends to get overlooked – even as we know that negative emotions such as chronic stress can cause trouble in this area, as well.
For instance, one 2012 study found a link between chronic periodontitis (severe gum disease) and experiences such as work problems, economic hardship, and job insecurity. It’s authors concluded that “stress may be considered as an important risk factor for periodontal disease.”
The following year, a review of earlier studies likewise affirmed that “psychosocial stress represents a risk indicator for periodontal disease and should be addressed before and during treatment.”
Why should stress be a risk factor for gum disease? A paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Oral Medicine and Oral Surgery spelled out some possible causes:
[It] can result from behavioral changes caused by stress (poor dental hygiene, smoking, etc.) and a direct neuroimmunoendocrinological action related to the consequences (particularly immunological) of the secretion of certain chemicals (e.g., cortisol) induced by the activation of the hypothalamus and the autonomic nervous system in response to stress.
Indeed, elevated cortisol levels are a sign of chronic inflammation, which is a hallmark of gum disease. (Cortisol is the primary stress hormone.) Higher levels have been associated with more severe and aggressive gum disease.
But just as negative emotions may damage oral health, positive emotions may support good oral health.
In one study, published early this year in Social Science & Medicine, data from nearly 2000 adults was analyzed. The authors looked at both C-reactive protein (CRP) levels – another biomarker for chronic inflammation that’s associated with gum disease – and the experience of positive affect and life satisfaction. A variety of health behaviors such as smoking, alcohol use, BMI, and the like, were also considered.
Both positive affect and life satisfaction were significantly related to lower CRP even after controlling for demographics and depression, in both the overall sample and chronically ill group.
Although the relationship was weaker once health behaviors were added into the mix, the authors concluded that they could only “account for some but not all of this relationship.”
It’s important here to keep in mind that “positive emotions” aren’t just about “happiness” but incorporate other mental/emotional states such as optimism or hopefulness, contentment, feeling that your life has meaning or a purpose, gratitude, and awe.
And all of these are ways of thinking that can be cultivated. The more you practice them, the more natural or innate they seem to be.