Stress is a normal part of life, but experience too much of it for too long, it starts to take a toll on your health.
So we look for ways of managing it. We seek coping mechanisms, some of which can make us more stress-hardy (e.g., yoga, deep breathing, positive self-talk), and some of which can compound the stress (e.g., drinking, drug use). In the midst of stressing out, we probably don’t really care whether our actions are positive or negative. We just want the bad feeling to go away.
A study published last year in Stress and Health considered one potential coping mechanism: gum chewing. According to its author, Andrew Paul Smith of the Centre for Occupational and Health Psychology at Cardiff University in Wales,
The results showed that chewing gum was associated with lower levels of perceived stress (both at work and life in general). Gum chewers were also less likely to be depressed and to have seen their doctor for high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Chewing gum was associated with lower levels of alcohol consumption and with cigarette smoking. Gum chewers were also more likely to be neurotic extraverts. Those who chewed gum were also more likely to be exposed to negative factors at work. Logistic regression analyses showed that the effects of chewing gum on stress and health remained significant when these confounding factors were controlled for. These results suggest that chewing gum may be a simple way of preventing stress and the negative health outcomes that are often associated with it.
All well and good, except if you’re chewing gum to prevent “stress and the negative health outcomes that are often associated with it,” you could be simultaneously courting a different kind of negative health outcome: dental and TMJ problems.
We’re not talking cavities caused by regular sugar baths from sugared gum. Using a sugar-free gum can prevent that. But frequent and long-term gum chewing puts enormous pressure on the teeth and jaw – extra pressure, in addition to what they normally experience each day when we eat, drink and swallow. Over time, this can cause soreness in the chewing muscles and TM joints (the “hinges” that let your mouth open and close), much as a baseball pitcher may get fatigued arm muscles or damage his elbow or shoulder from overuse or a mechanical flaw in his delivery.
So, too, the facial muscles and jaw joints. Over time, this can develop into a full blown temporomandibular disorder (TMD). (You can get an idea of how and why problems in the TMJ can hurt so bad by comparing what a healthy, properly functioning TMJ looks like with dysfunctional ones, as shown in this set of videos.)
We’re not saying you should never chew gum. Once in a while is fine, and sometimes it can even be beneficial. But relying on it constantly as a stress cure may not be the best decision you could make.