May is Better Sleep & Mental Health Awareness Month!
Hit snooze on late nights, doom scrolling, and existential spirals
How’d you sleep last night?
In a world where Ozempic dreams and revenge sleep procrastination are as common as insomnia, the answer to this simple question becomes a liiittle more complex. Everyone has a different relationship with sleep. Though we snooze less as we get older — oh, to sleep like a teenager again — humans are wired to follow a circadian rhythm for the majority of our lives. Our natural energy (and physical health) thrives when we rest and rise with the sun. Strongly connected to our moods, our sleep and wake cycles also play a major role in regulating our mental health.
Modern Americans, however, seem to be wired to defy the laws of nature. We sacrifice zzz’s to scroll on small screens in the dark (or worse, to work), mute morning rays with expensive blackout curtains, and chase drowsiness away with caffeine, sugar, and alcohol. Despite our less-than ideal bedtime habits, we love to hit the hay — and with the popularity of wellness trends (see: Sleepy Girl Mocktails) and more of us spending time at home, Americans may well be on their way to better sleep. Even the COVID-somniacs are sleeping better, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
This month, we'll focus on how better slumber = better habits, (and hygiene!) — which exponentially affects your mental health too. But first, what happens in your mouth while you sleep?
Saliva — your mouth’s best kept secret
During waking moments, saliva helps keep your mouth clean and strong. It breaks down food and wipes leftovers away from your teeth and gums (like a mini car wash!) while releasing disease-fighting substances like calcium, fluoride, and phosphate ions, all essential minerals that help prevent cavities and other infections. But when you doze off, so do your salivary glands — that’s why morning breath and slimy film are so common upon waking.
Like the rest of your body, your mouth does what it can to conserve energy during sleep, so the necessary regenerative functions like hormone production, tissue repair, and brain detoxification, can take place. Instead of cleaning your teeth, your saliva lubricates your nasal passages while you rest, which helps pass air through your nose and mouth. If this process of lubrication is regularly interrupted, it can cause sleep disturbances like snoring and dry mouth (more on that later).
Don’t skip the sink (or your breath might stink)
When you do your oral care routine before bedtime, you keep oral bacteria levels low. In this case, your body can naturally pull back on saliva production and you’ll doze, dream, and wake like a baby. But when you don’t clean before crashing, oral bacteria thrives. This bad habit can come back to bite you (looking at you, British brushers!).
Aside from morning breath, consistently neglecting your mouth may result in cavities and tooth decay from the build-up of acids, even if you stay away from sweets and sugar. A neglected chomper is also more susceptible to dry mouth, or xerostomia — a condition where you can’t produce enough saliva. You may experience a dry or “sticky” mouth when you’re nervous, stressed, or smoking (AKA Cotton Mouth) but once it’s chronic, you can even have trouble swallowing, eating, and speaking.
All of these issues are precursors for many “sleep disorders” — a term that’s a bit misleading. While conditions like sleep apnea and bruxism (AKA teeth grinding) are detected during sleep, they hurt your entire body 24/7. Sleep apnea, for example, stresses the body’s upper airways and exhausts the respiratory system. Teeth grinding can cause all sorts of chronic physical ailments, like migraines and jaw aches. Luckily, your healthy habits and sleep hygiene can make a difference.
Your brain feels the strain, too
1 in 3 American adults report not resting enough — yawn! That makes for one drowsy, stressed out country. Our bodies react to exhaustion differently, but it’s common for our mental health to suffer. Because rest is when our brain declutters the room in our mind, sleep-deprivation literally blocks natural processes from occurring when they should. Ideally, we sleep enough to consistently experience cycles of REM rest. While we dream of loose teeth, our glymphatic system flushes out toxins and assists with cellular regeneration. This process allows the brain to enter a prolonged period of slow-wave delta sleep, during which “positive emotional content” is stored — AKA happy memories.
Recent research points to a bidirectional relationship between sleep and mental health — mental distress makes it hard to get some shut-eye, and inconsistent sleep can worsen emotional turmoil and reactivity. This is an important nugget of info re: habits and consistency. If you struggle to maintain a self-care routine, the quality of your sleep could tell you why — you might be too emotionally overwhelmed to brush for a whole two minutes! That might sound like a stretch, but seriously, we all know it’s hard to make healthy choices when you’re feeling like the spiral-eyes-emoji all the time. 😵💫
Today, the lines between physical exhaustion, burnout, and mental health conditions are blurrier than ever. Our brains are overstimulated, and working overtime to make sense of “post-pandemic” life — an adjustment we’re still processing and coping with. The good news is that there are ways to minimize the impact of stress on your sleep, and they’re actually fun (and yummy)! Meditation and herbal teas are popular across the board. Natural sleep aids and functional gummies can also help, and OLLY’s a great example. People seem to be getting real results — it’s a rapidly growing industry, expected to reach $97.5 billion by the end of 2027. That’s a whole lot of gummies!
Sleep can be your superpower
Even if you struggle to sleep as a result of environmental or situational factors, biology is on your side. Your body is designed to crave slumber, to repair itself in la la land, and return to waking life with fresh eyes. Now that we’ve zoomed out to explore the connections between saliva, sleep, disease, and disorders, let’s refocus on our area of expertise — your mouth. Here are a few creative ways to cushion your oral care routine with sweet sleep-inducing self-care. Happy snoozing!!
Brush better, sleep better