Teeth grinding is incredibly common in my dental practice, and research suggests that up to one in three people may suffer from night bruxism (teeth grinding). When I started practicing dentistry, I was astounded by how often I was seeing it in patients. For a long time I would talk about stress, make the patient a night splint to prevent damage of the teeth, and that would be it.
I’ve since come to learn that teeth grinding is a sign that you’re not breathing the right way during sleep. Your brain receives a message that your airways are closing (which is similar to the choking response) and it pulls the jaw forward to open your throat, which causes you to clench or push the teeth together.
If you typically jump into bed and drift off easily but wake up the next morning only to feel like you’ve hardly slept—and experience brain fog and irritability throughout the day—you could be showing symptoms of sleep-disordered breathing, namely, upper airway resistance syndrome, or UARS. According to the National Institutes of Health, up to 70 million people are affected by chronic sleep disorders. Most people wouldn’t think they’re at risk, but what they don’t realize is that anyone who hasn’t had proper dental, jaw, or facial development can be affected.
What are the symptoms of UARS?
Those who suffer from UARS often have a few characteristics in common: a narrow face, a small or narrow jaw, and they’ve probably had orthodontia for overcrowded teeth as a child. But that’s not all. Other common symptoms of UARS include:
- Teeth grinding
- Digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, constipation, acid reflux, or bloating
- Cold feet and hands
- Low blood pressure, dizziness, and lightheadedness (23 percent of people with UARS have low blood pressure)
- Chronic runny or stuffy nose
- Stress, anxiety, teeth clenching, depression, anxiety (or ADHD in children)
These symptoms often lead to even bigger issues, like sleep apnea, and if it’s not treated, even heart failure and brain degeneration.
Does what you eat really matter?
It may seem hard to believe at first, but the health of our jaw, facial structure, and airways starts with what we eat. Disordered breathing conditions—including sleep apnea and UARS—are craniofacial growth problems. When the jaw, teeth, and face don’t develop the way they should, the airways don’t function as they’re meant to. Because resistance in the upper airways makes breathing harder, your sleep is disrupted throughout the night, which leads to those pesky headaches and crankiness you may be feeling during the day.
Just like weightlifters lift heavy weights to strengthen their joints and muscles, we can stimulate our jaws to grow in the right way. But since we can’t take our jaw to the gym, the best way to strengthen it is to eat raw, tough foods like carrots and celery with every meal.
Are there other alternatives to help with UARS?
People with UARS may benefit from a mandibular advancement splint, or a CPAP machine, which your dentist or sleep physician will give you. But a new and more complete approach to sleep issues is to retrain people who have breathing disorders to breathe correctly, and it all starts with strengthening your airway muscles. In addition to eating foods that require your jaw muscles to chew, playing an instrument, singing opera, or even performing some simple daily tongue and breathing exercises can offer a big improvement. Here are other ways to train the muscles that hold the airways open at night:
- Good posture will create resting head and neck alignment that promotes proper breathing and delivers a maximum amount of oxygen.
- Rest your tongue against the roof of the mouth or palate. Training your tongue for this is simple: Hold your tongue firmly behind the front teeth. Now push the back of your tongue to the roof of the mouth. Your neck should feel strained or tired. This is good! You’re exercising the muscles that hold the airways open. Do this for one minute and aim to increase to three-minute exercises daily.
- Breathe through your nose. To correct your breathing, start by reprogramming yourself to breathe through your nose.
- Try practicing the following diaphragmatic breathing exercise for three minutes per day. Here's what to do: Holding your tongue firmly against the palate, sit with a straight back and your mouth closed. Put one hand over your belly, and relax your shoulders, jaw, and neck. Breathe in for three seconds, letting your belly expand (you should feel your hand being pushed forward by the expansion). Release the air out slowly through your nose (four seconds). Your hand should move back toward you. When it does, inhale again. Repeat the cycle 20 times (three seconds in, four seconds out).
You shouldn’t be surprised if the effects of these lifestyle changes spread to more than just sleep. Slower, deeper breathing allows your body to extract more oxygen and activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps your digestive system to function at its peak.