Let's Talk About What's Really Happening in Your Bedroom at Night

You could hear it all the way down the hallway...

My research assistant said it sounded like metal or plastic grinding against a chalkboard. And it was loud.

It was her husband grinding his teeth in his sleep.

Snoring gets plenty of time in the health-news spotlight, but teeth grinding, medically called bruxism, is surprisingly common, with an estimated 40 million Americans doing it at night. Many people are unaware they grind their teeth, especially if you don't have a spouse or sleep partner to alert you.

A dull, constant headache or a sore jaw when you wake up (with or without a clicking sound when you open your mouth) can be signs that you've been gnashing your teeth in your sleep. If you suspect you are doing it, talk to your dentist, who can examine your mouth and teeth for telltale signs.

If you think you – or your partner – is grinding his or her teeth, here are a few things you need to know...

Why do people grind their teeth?

The repetitive, involuntary movement of clenching your jaw muscles can be caused by stress or anxiety. When you grind your teeth, it releases an endorphin in your brain that feels good, so you continue to do it. It's like your body's coping mechanism for stress.

Bruxism can also be caused by an abnormal bite or crooked teeth. The jaw naturally wants to be in a comfortable position. So if your bite is off, jaw muscles will uneasily shift back and forth while you sleep, causing your teeth to grind together.

Grinding your teeth can also be a red flag for another sleep related issue. Studies have shown that grinding your teeth can actually be a warning sign of an underlying sleep disorder... one that I've covered here in the Health & Wealth Bulletinsleep apnea.

When you fall asleep, your tongue and jaw muscles relax. If they obstruct your airway and cause you to stop breathing, your body can respond by gnashing your teeth to reopen the airway. Research has shown that almost one in four patients with obstructive sleep apnea suffers from bruxism.

How bad can it get?

Occasional teeth grinding isn't really a big deal. But chronic bruxism is not something to ignore... It can lead to loosening, fracturing, or even loss of teeth. And severe bruxism can cause you to grind your teeth down to stumps. If these things happen, you may need to get bridges, crowns, root canals, implants, even partial or full dentures – often painful and expensive dental procedures.

Also, teeth are made of nerves, and if you grind down enough of their protective enamel coating, your teeth will become very sensitive, and worst-case scenario, you will hit nerves... and lots of pain. Also, once enamel is gone, it is lost forever. Enamel can only be restored with methods like bonding or veneers.

Grinding your teeth can also affect your jaws, causing TMD. Your temporomandibular joint is the hinge that connects your jaw to the temporal bones of your skull. Issues with your jaw are known as temporomandibular disorders, or TMD.  TMD can cause severe pain, and even jaws that get stuck and can't open.

What you can do?

Treatment depends on the cause. When teeth grinding is apnea-related, if you get the apnea treated, the bruxism should go away.

For stress- or anxiety-related teeth grinding, try to find ways to relax before bed. I've said it a few times, but it's worth repeating... Get your cellphones out of the bedroom. Don't look at them before bed, and don't keep them next to you while sleeping. Avoid or limit alcohol a few hours before bedtime, and don't drink caffeine after 2 p.m. Try yoga and meditation for stress relief.

If treating the cause doesn't work, you can try to treat the symptoms by using a mouth guard. You can get a custom one – costing hundreds of dollars – from your dentist For less than $15, you can order this one from Amazon. You fit the guard to your own mouth by placing the plastic piece in boiling water and then molding it to your teeth.

A mouth guard won't stop your bruxism habit, but if you're going to chew on something all night, a piece of plastic you can replace every year is much better than your teeth.

How well are you sleeping at night? Let us know your tips for getting a great night's sleep at [email protected].

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
May 14, 2019