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How chewing gum could help relieve anxiety

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Jennifer Bowden looks at the research that suggests chewing gum may lower levels of anxiety and stress in healthy adults.

QUESTIONI have a generalised anxiety disorder that I manage without medication. I often crave chewing gum when I’m feeling particularly anxious. Is there any evidence that chewing gum helps with anxiety?

ANSWER: Anxiety is a normal human emotion that serves a useful purpose. But it becomes a disorder when it is experienced in greater intensity or duration than normal, leading to impairment or disability.

High levels of anxiety are a daily reality for many people. According to a study of New Zealand general medical practices, anxiety-related mental disorders are the type most commonly seen by primary carers.

They include obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorders, social and other phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder, but generalised anxiety disorder is the most common.

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The latter’s symptoms can include persistent worrying or anxiety about a range of events or activities out of proportion to their impact. The worry is pervasive and difficult to control and is associated with restlessness or feeling keyed up and on edge. People with the disorder can tire easily, have difficulty concentrating, have their mind go blank, feel irritable and tense and have disturbed sleep. Significant distress or impairment can be the result.

The recommended treatment for people with generalised anxiety disorder includes psychological or drug therapy or a combination of the two. Getting a firm diagnosis and discussing treatment with a doctor should be the first course of action.

One thing you won’t find among the treatment recommendations is any mention of chewing gum. Yet there is research that suggests gum chewing may lower levels of anxiety and stress in healthy adults.

In 2011, a number of studies were published investigating the links. One review concluded there was some evidence that chewing gum reduced chronic stress, although its effects on acute stress were less clear.

Cardiff University researchers did a clinical trial to see if they could shed light on gum’s effect on acute social stress. Participants, either with or without gum, attended a mock job interview. The results suggested that chewing gum helped keep anxiety in check and increased alertness.

A Japanese study looked at the effect of chewing gum on psychological status and physical and mental fatigue in healthy young adults. The participants were randomly assigned to the control group or a group who chewed gum twice a day for 14 days. At the end of the trial, the levels of state anxiety (anxiety they felt at that time) were significantly lower among the gum chewers, as were their scores of depression-dejection, fatigue and confusion. The researchers concluded regular gum chewing had an effect on the psychological status of these healthy young adults.

More findings in support of gum chewing came from a web-based survey published in 2013. In a sample of nearly 400 adults, the regular chewers had lower levels of perceived stress, anxiety and depression.

And another Japanese study, in 2016, looked at brain activity, heart rate and levels of state anxiety in a group of gum-chewing adults who were subjected to a variety of annoying sounds. They concluded that the gum reduced stress-related responses.

What possible mechanism could explain the gum-chewing relief effect? Saliva analysis shows habitual chewers have lower levels of stress indicators cortisol, alpha-amylase and secretory immunoglobulin A. These hormonal changes could, in part, account for gum lovers reporting lower levels of stress.

Although none of the studies look at the effect on people with generalised stress disorder, it’s possible chewing-gum cravings are a message from the body that you should continue to respond to.

This article was first published in the April 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.