Gum chewing is an age-old practice, according to the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Ancient Mayans and Greeks chewed tree sap, as did Native Americans. They introduced the practice to colonial settlers, and it has remained popular to the present day, although commercial gum has replaced the original spruce sap. Many people don't realize they may be chewing their stress away each time they pop a stick of gum into their mouths.
Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to upsetting or threatening situations, the Help Guide psychology website explains. Your mind and body both prepare to face the situation or run away from it--the primal "fight or flight" response. Sometimes you are forced to stay in a stressful situation even when you want to flee. For example, you may have an irritating job or ongoing family conflict. The stress becomes chronic and takes a physical and emotional toll.
Chronic stress harms your memory and concentration because your mind is focused on worry. Help Guide warns that it also can make you moody and irritable. You feel overwhelmed and may eventually get depressed. It affects your digestion and immune system and often causes sleep disturbances and tense, achy muscles. Many people develop nervous habits such as nail biting or try to fight the stress with alcohol, smoking or drugs.
Many common stress relief options are available, including meditation, deep breathing, physical exercise and yoga. Researchers have discovered that the simple act of gum chewing also brings down stress levels. A 2008 study led by Australian researcher Andrew Scholey, a professor of behavioral and brain sciences at Swinburne University in Melbourne, showed that gum chewing reduced the stress hormone cortisol in study participants. They reported feeling less stressed and more alert.
Gum has some benefits over other stress-reduction techniques. It is inexpensive, readily available and is acceptable to chew almost anywhere. Other people may notice and be annoyed if you close your eyes for a quick meditation during a stressful meeting or conversation, and you may not have enough time for exercise or yoga after a bad day. You can easily and subtly slip a piece of gum into your mouth in most circumstances. The University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office advises that sugar-free gum may prevent stress-related weight gain by acting as a substitute for snacking when you're agitated.
Dr. Douglas Sinn, an oral surgeon at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, warns that excessive gum chewing causes health problems. Jaw muscles get fatigued, which can cause pain and spasms. Eventually, it may lead to temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), a painful condition that prevents proper opening and closing of the jaws. Sinn says that people chewing gum for stress relief are especially vulnerable because they are more likely to bite down harder and chew more vigorously. He recommends incorporating other stress-reduction techniques--such as squeezing a stress ball, exercising and meditating--instead of solely relying on gum.