If there’s one thing that I see a lot of as a dentist, it’s people who grind their teeth.
There are different types and severities of grinding. Most people grind at night when they don’t notice it. Some clench during the day. Many report stress with family or work situations as the cause. For all of these cases, dentists usually discuss stress, sleep and making a night guard.
The problem is that a night guard protects teeth from damage, but it doesn’t address what teeth grinding is telling you about your body.
Teeth grinding is actually a sign your body is struggling to breathe, and it is usually associated with poor sleep habits. While a night splint may stop damage to tooth enamel, there are many health risks associated with breathing syndromes.
Signs of improper breathing
There are many signs of improper breathing. Teeth grinding is one of the easiest ways to tell if you’re not breathing correctly. This is because when you sleep and grind your teeth, it’s your body trying to open up your airways.
When you sleep, the muscles that support your airways relax. This means that soft structures like your tongue can fall back into your airway. Grinding your teeth during sleep is the jaw pushing forward to open your airway. It’s literally a survival mechanism to prevent choking.
Other signs that may relate to improper breathing (especially during sleep) include:
Sleeping with mouth open
Headaches and migraines
Digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome
Cold hands and feet
Waking up feeling tired
Night time bed wetting (usually in kids)
Each of these relate to situations where your body is unable to manage the autonomic nervous system. Breathing patterns are tightly connected to the quality of your sleep and many other bodily processes.
Health risks of improper breathing
When you sleep, you basically have one job to do: breathe. Breathing delivers oxygen to your body as it rests and heals during sleep. The biggest role of oxygen is to replenish the brain.
Normally, the brain is tightly protected by the blood brain barrier. The purpose is to make sure it stays regulated and isn’t exposed to unwanted outsiders. As you sleep, your brain goes through a detox process. The blood brain barrier relaxes to let in a rush of cerebral spinal fluid. This flushes out metabolites and toxins that build up through the day and can’t escape.
During this time, oxygen is a key part of this process. If sleep is disrupted or there simply isn’t enough, your brain isn’t getting enough of a chance to clear these toxins out.
Obstructive sleep apnea is the end stage example of this. This is when breathing stops during sleep and starves the brain of oxygen.
Sleep apnea is related to serious health conditions like:
High blood pressure
Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
But teeth grinding is a sign you have a breathing disorder that can’t be diagnosed as sleep apnea. Upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS) is a condition where breathing problems during sleep interrupt sleep processes, but don’t result in stoppages in breathing.
Studies have related symptoms of insomnia and functional somatic syndrome to UARS. But the long term risk may be that the disease process progresses to obstructive sleep apnea.
Teeth and jaws as a sign of airways
Your dental check-up can reveal much more than simply the health of your teeth. The mouth is one of the best indicators that your body is breathing properly. If you grind your teeth, you should see your dentist immediately. There may be other signs of oxygen deprivation such as jaw dysfunction or headaches.
Remember your body needs oxygen every minute of every day. Your teeth and dental health can give vital signs that you may be starving your body of this crucial nutrient.
For more information on the breathing and teeth connection, you can visit my website DrStevenLin.com
Dr. Steven Lin is a practicing board accredited dentist, writer and speaker. As passionate health educator, Dr. Lin works to merge the fields of dental and nutritional science to show how the mouth is a crucial part of our overall health. As a TEDx speaker his work has been featured on influential health websites such as MindBodyGreen and About.com. Dr. Lin is now working on his own publication ‘The Dental Diet’ an exploration of how food is the foundation of oral health and how it connects to the body. Follow Dr. Lin on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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