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Self-care, wellness, and survival of the fittest: Balance for dental hygienists

Jan. 25, 2017
Surviving is more than merely getting through the day. This dental hygienist shares information about something that has helped her become a more balanced and healthy oral health professional—yoga.
Surviving is more than merely getting through the day. This dental hygienist shares information about something that has helped her become a more balanced and healthy oral health professional—yoga and meditation.

When you think of the phrase “survival of the fittest,” you might picture mob of people racing through a mud-covered obstacle course. Traditionally, the person who finishes first is proclaimed “#1.” At this point, you might quit trying if you are a competitor or quit watching if you are in the audience. Who really pays attention to fourth and fifth place?

A survivalist, on the other hand, might argue that the ability to purify water, build a shelter, start a fire, and find food are essential for mankind to exist and be content. In the most basic physical sense, the survivalist is correct. We cannot exist without an abundance of earth’s most precious resources—food and clean water—but having physical strength and material things does not equate to a happy and healthy life. Instead, the most important skill for survival is the ability to keep balance with in the body and to remain poised even through life’s toughest obstacle courses.

The ideal contemporary oral health professional

According to Tsang, the ideal contemporary oral health professional is a reflective and reflexive practitioner. (1) To be reflexive is “to evolve one’s very being, one’s self-awareness, and mindfulness through self-examining one’s actions with wider social contexts.” (1)For the dental hygienist in private practice, each day could mean a new emotionally and physically depleting obstacle course. We are expected to work with a templated schedule that was designed by someone other than a dental hygienist, yet inquiring minds want to know why many of us struggle to stay on time. The fact that we are denied the flexibility of an individualized schedule brings us excessive stress, anxiety, and anger. Depending on the hygienist to doctor ratio in your practice, every day in the office can feel like the survival of the fittest. How do you prepare for the unknown and remain a “reflective and reflexive oral health practitioner”? Well, you can practice what oral health care professionals preach: total health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has not changed its definition of health in over 60 years. The WHO defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity.” (2) To achieve this, the WHO suggests avoiding an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and tobacco use. (2) What the WHO is describing is body balance, the way to an alert and reflective mind. From my recent journeys with yoga and meditation, I’d like to describe body balance as the mind (brain), body (physical), and soul (heart) connection. In order for the body to function to its fullest potential, it needs all three parts to be healthy and in sync. As a dental health-care professional, I will argue that total body balance is essential for the clinician and it starts with self-care.

Chakra healing for body balance

In Indian thought, there are seven energy wheels that sit in alignment with the body. These energy wheels are known as chakras and run from the base of the spine to the top of the head (figure 1). Each is represented through a different color and vibrates a different prana, “a vital life force which keeps us vibrant, healthy, and alive.” (3) In Indian culture, a decline in mental, social, and physical health can mean an imbalance in one or more of the seven chakras.(3)

Figure 1: The location of the seven chakras in Indian thought

The brain is rightfully located at the crown of the head because it is the controller of the physical body. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says the brain “is the seat of intelligence, interpreter of the senses, initiator of body movement, and controller of behavior.” (4) The crown chakra, or seventh chakra, also sits at the crown of the head and is represented by the color violet (figure 1). The crown chakra is associated with the pineal gland, brain, and central nervous system. (3) It is the center for divine intelligence and mental health. A balanced crown chakra generates positive thoughts, feelings, and most importantly, a calmness of mind—when there is mayhem in the dental office, only the calm survive. Stress has no chance against the oral health practitioner with a radiating crown chakra or calmness of mind.

Balancing your seventh chakra: The heart-brain connection

The relationship between the brain and heart is well documented by the HeartMath Institute (HMI), a nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to the study of heart intelligence. (5, 6) According to HMI, previous teachings about the relationship between the heart and the brain are misleading. It is widely believed that the heart is highly sensitive to brain waves or that the brain is what controls the heart. (6, 7) HMI research uses educational technologies and science to test the theory that the heart has its own center of divine intelligence known as the “little brain” and that “the heart actually sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart.” (5)And so it seems that the heart wears its own crown and controls the cranial brain through the emotional system or how you feel. Research suggests that emotions are responsible for our mental state and behaviors including perceptions, sleep, and physical activities. (5-7)

In chakra medicine, there is an energy wheel that spins at the center of the chest and is associated with the color green. This is known to be the area of the fourth, or heart, chakra and is the energy center for love, compassion, and joy. This chakra embodies all of the emotional energies that bring us happiness and calmness of mind by motivating positive thinking. (3) It is the fulcrum for all seven chakras, so we must keep this muscle healthy and strong. As science suggests, the way to a “reflexive and reflective” mind is through the heart!

Heart health for brain health

The human body is a complex machine fueled by food so we need to be mindful of the types of food (and other substances) we put into it. Excessive alcohol consumption, processed foods, and diets high in sodium, fats, added sugars, and refined grains will wreak havoc in the body, so we need to “fuel wisely.” (8) For example, the CDC estimates that 610,000 people living in the United States die from cardiovascular diseases (CVD) every year, with coronary heart disease being the most common type. (9) Food components high in saturated fats, trans fatty acids, and cholesterol are linked to CVD and should be consumed in moderation. (1) Instead, we should be flooding our digestive system with healthy food that fuels our prana and our bodies, keeping us vibrant, healthy and, most importantly alive!

The benefits of yoga and mediation

Secondary to a healthy diet and essential for overall health is any physical activity that promotes deep breathing and circulatory movements on a regular basis. Exercise gets the heart pumping and the circulatory system flowing, aiding in the transportation of blood, nutrients, vitamins, and oxygen to the brain and throughout the body. (2, 8, 9) Yoga is a centuries-old practice that dental hygienists can greatly benefit from. According to the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), “the purpose of yoga is to create strength, awareness and harmony in both the mind and body.” Some of the physical benefits of yoga include increased energy, flexibility, and cardiovascular and circulatory health.

Furthermore, the AOA says that “one of the best benefits of yoga is how it helps a person manage stress, which is known to have devastating effects on the body and mind.” (10)This is because yoga combines mediation and deep breathing, the two activities essential for chakra balance and a healthy mental state. (3) Yoga and meditation can help promote better sleeping habits, which also alleviate stress. (3, 10) In 2015, the National Sleep Foundation published new recommendations stating that adults should be sleeping seven to nine hours on average. (11) Dental hygienists are hardworking professionals and unfortunately many of us do not get enough rest. Sleep deprivation takes an enormous toll on the body and brain, effecting alertness and influencing erratic behavior. Whether it be at the office or in your personal life, finding balance is a necessity for your physical, social, and mental well-being. (2) When things feel out of control, yoga, meditation, and a healthy diet will help you reconnect with the only thing that matters: your heart. You will feel better on the inside which will promote a glowing crown chakra and the ability to manage intense moments of stress often experienced in clinical practice.

As dental hygienists we have a significant role in the overall health of the public. In turn, how can we practice evidence-based decision making without an alert and reflective mind? We have a responsibility to our patients and that is to practice what we preach: good overall health. Survival of the fittest has nothing to do with winning first place. It is instead about keeping balance through some of the day’s most challenging obstacle courses. I encourage you to start your journey into self-wellness and let the chakra healing begin!

1. Tsang AK. Oral health students as reflective practitioners: changing patterns of student reflections over a period of 12 months. J Dent Hyg. 2012;86:120-129.
2. Johnson JA, Stoskopf C. Comparative Health Systems: Global Perspectives. Sudbury, Massachusetts: Jones and Bartlett Learning; 2011.
3. Simpson L, Hale T. The Book of Chakra Healing. New York: Sterling Ethos; 2013.
4. Brain Basics: Know Your Brain. NIH website. Accessed January 25, 2017.
5. McCraty R. Science of the Heart, Volume 2: Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance. Boulder Creek, California: HealthMath Institute; 2015.
6. The Heart-Brain Connection. HeartMath Institute website. Accessed January 25, 2017.
7. McCraty R. Heart-brain neurodynamics: the making of emotions. HeartMath website. Published 2015. Accessed January 25, 2017.
8. Stegeman CA, Davis JR. The Dental Hygienist's Guide to Nutritional Care. 4th ed. St. Louis, Missouri: Saunders; 2014.
9. Know the facts about heart disease. CDC website. Accessed January 23, 2017.
10. The Benefits of Yoga. American Osteopathic Association website. Accessed December 26, 2016.
11. National Sleep Foundation Recommends New Sleep Times. National Sleep Foundation website. Published February 2, 2015. Accessed January 25, 2017.

Shavonne R. Healy, RDH, BSDH, is a District of Columbia-registered dental hygienist specializing in implant care. Her area of clinical expertise is oral surgery. She is a member of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association and currently serves as the 2016–2017 president-elect for the District of Columbia Dental Hygienists’ Association. Shavonne is a graduate student at University of Bridgeport: Fones School of Dental Hygiene. Her mission is to help others obtain professional freedom through mind body and soul balance.