In truth, this isn’t the first time we’re hearing about the correlation between what we eat (or chew) and its impact on our neurological system. We recently chatted with board-certified psychiatrist and ADHD clinical specialist, Sasha Hamdani, MD, who revealed that spicy, crunchy, sour foods (what she calls “sensory snacks”) can activate brain receptors and boost concentration. Is gum no different? It’s a little sticky.
Ahead, we delve into the science-backed reasons why chewing gum can help reduce tension and anxiety in some individuals.
How chewing gum can help gnaw away at anxiety and stress
According to Dr. Girgis, a study on the impact of chewing gum on stress levels showed that mastication—chewing—increases the blood oxygen levels in the prefrontal cortex (often deemed the “personality center” because it’s where we process moment-to-moment input from our surroundings, compare that input to past experiences, and then react to them) and the hippocampus (area of the brain largely responsible for learning and memory and managing stress hormones).
“Taking the focus off anything that would activate our fight-or-flight nervous system is a good thing. By chewing gum, your attention is more on the physical and less on the mental aspects of what you may be experiencing.”
—Raafat W. Girgis, MD, triple board-certified psychiatrist
So, what does this mean in terms of stress and anxiety? For starters, research shows that exposure to chronic stress can impair prefrontal cognitive abilities and affect the structure of dendrites, which are responsible for receiving and carrying signals in brain neurons. But information and memory processing are just a few of the ways that stress can impact the hippocampus. Still, studies demonstrate that increased cerebral blood flow—one of the benefits of (gum) chewing—can boost cognitive activity.
As such, Dr. Girgis notes that chewing gum can be an effective self-soothing method because it can promote stress reduction. “There are many neural circuits connecting our masticatory organs to the brain, and chewing gum will stimulate the function of these areas,” Dr. Girgis says. Hence why gum chewing can help redirect attention, especially when stress or anxiety levels begin to peak. “Taking the focus off anything that would activate our fight-or-flight nervous system is a good thing. By chewing gum, your attention is more on the physical and less on the mental aspects of what you may be experiencing.”
Tips for an effective gum-chewing session
In terms of the best gum flavor or brand to choose, Dr. Girgis says anything goes. Big Red, Juicy Fruit, Hubba Bubba, you name it. “Flavor is a personal choice; however there are discussions and research that will offer suggestions. [Although], it’s really up to the individual and what’s most pleasing to them,” he says. Now, when it comes to how long you should be chewing gum, the psychiatrist says that the sweet spot is around 20 minutes or so. “It’s said that in the first 15 to 20 minutes you’ll notice a difference, while other studies have found benefits during only the first 15 to 20 minutes of chewing gum,” he says.
It’s important to keep in mind that chewing gum over a long period can diminish its flavor and chewiness. As such, Dr. Girgis recommends swapping in a new piece every half hour, as needed. Meanwhile, he notes that chewing gum before engaging in an activity that’s known to stress you out, can also help calm your nerves ahead of time. The good news? Chewing gum is something that can be done discreetly anywhere at any time (at least for the most part!).
What can you do if you can’t chew gum?
If you find yourself in a position where you can’t or simply don’t want to chew gum, Dr. Girgis recommends finding other techniques for managing stress. In the case that chewing isn’t involved, he says using a rubber band on the wrist can help do the trick. According to a recent video by Alan Mandell, DC, better known as @motivationaldoc on TikTok, gently tugging on the rubber band and letting it lightly snap on your wrist can help redirect symptoms of a panic attack and train the brain to subconsciously start avoiding the stimulus—although it’s very important to note that this should never be used as a method of self harm.
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- Zibell, Steven, and Elaine Madansky. “Impact of gum chewing on stress levels: online self-perception research study.” Current medical research and opinion vol. 25,6 (2009): 1491-500. doi:10.1185/03007990902959283
- Anand, Kuljeet Singh, and Vikas Dhikav. “Hippocampus in health and disease: An overview.” Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology vol. 15,4 (2012): 239-46. doi:10.4103/0972-2327.104323
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