What Teeth Grinding Really Tells You About Sleep

Hearing the tooth-on-tooth sound of night grinding may be likened to the same feeling of fingernails down shrieking a blackboard. For a person fast asleep and grinding, it might be a habit that they don’t even notice. However, teeth grinding could have far deeper health implications than simply driving your bed partner insane.

A woman resting on her bed
Catherine Delahaye / Getty Images

Often attributed to stress, new understanding of sleep and the airway reveal the reasons that people may grind their teeth could be the sign of nighttime breathing difficulty. Conditions that may be linked to this problem are upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS) or even obstructive sleep apnea which both indicate a frightening lack of oxygen while you’re sleeping.

Sleep and Rejuvenation

When you picture someone clenching their jaw so tight that they are grinding their teeth, it doesn’t give you the picture of a peaceful night's rest.

Researchers are uncovering the vast contribution of sleep to our health. Probably most significant of discoveries is the role of good sleep on the function of our brain. The development of neural connections and clearing metabolites in the brain during sleep show that degenerative diseases like dementia may stem from poor quality rest.

When we sleep, our body rests most of the systems it uses for day-to-day functions. The only thing required, that is normally controlled by our consciousness, is breathing. Delivery of oxygen is crucial for our body to maintain its processes during sleep and makes any disruptions to our airways a particular concern to sleep.

Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome (UARS)

A lesser-known consequence of breathing complications during sleep is Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome (UARS for short). It refers to the condition where increased resistance to breathing can lead to disruptions in sleep. Characterized by daytime tiredness, UARS is not associated with lowering oxygen levels in the blood seen in sleep apnea.

UARS is caused by narrowing of the upper airway may be described as trying to breathe through an opening as small as a straw. Whilst it can present similarly to its bigger brother, sleep apnea, UARS is not as easily identifiable. One particular difference between UARS and sleep apnoea is that an equal proportion of women suffer from UARS unlike the heavily male-dominated sleep apnea which is almost always associated with snoring.

Night Grinding and UARS

Studies show that half of women aged 20 to 70 suffer from disruption of sleep. While snoring is the hallmark of obstructive sleep apnea, night grinding may be the hallmark of UARS.

We’re all familiar with people who snore in their sleep. The mechanisms of snoring show what happens to our airways during asleep. As the muscles that hold open the upper airways relax during sleep cycles, they cause the tongue to rest back into our throat, which can partially block the airways. The lowered volume can cause vibration in our throat, due to air having to pass through a smaller passage, or otherwise known as snoring.

Research has linked night bruxism as a risk factor for sleep apnea and for similar reasons, is likely to be heavily associated with UARS. Teeth grinding is our body’s mechanism to deal with over-constriction of the airway muscle relation during sleep. Clenching our teeth is the result of the body pushing the jaw forward in order to open the airways to allow us to breathe. It also explains the higher women-to-male ratio seen in UARS as compared to sleep apnea, which is typically associated with overweight, middle-aged men.

Signs of Night Bruxism

If you’re suffering any of these symptoms it may be an indication that you’re grinding your teeth at night 

Even though night clenching may help us breathe at night, the damage to our teeth and jaw can be disastrous. 

What to Do If You Suspect Teeth Grinding

An appointment with your dentist will be able to tell you whether you’re a night grinder or not. Once this is established it may be necessary to undergo a sleep study in order to see if breathing difficulties are causing you to grind your teeth.

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By Steven Lin, DDS
Steven Lin, DDS, is a dentist, TEDx speaker, health educator, and author.