Content Dam Diq Online Articles 2018 05 Paonethumb52418

Dental hygienists' diets: Push yourself with the protein of passion and not the sugar of stress

May 21, 2018
Dental hygienists push themselves to learn so we can care for our patients. While pushing themselves, they sometimes forget to look after their health, to model the behavior encouraged in patients.

"Being able to recognize common stress symptoms
can give you a jump on managing them. In turn,
you can take some basic steps to look after yourself—
the person who will soon be caring for others."

By Sara Paone, RDH, RNCP

It has been a long journey for you to get to this point. You have pushed yourself through a feeling that there are not enough hours in the day to accomplish your dream of finishing dental hygiene school. You have stayed up all hours of the night learning the new language of the oral cavity, trying to understand every concavity and fossa in the dental anatomy test, and the poring over the long list of bacteria that you will be working with in our profession.

As dental hygienists, we push ourselves to learn so we can care for our patients—enabling us to become trusted providers to those in our care. While we are pushing ourselves, we sometimes forget to look after our health, to model the behavior we will encourage in our patients. Stress symptoms can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior:

Common effects of stress on your body(1)

  • Headache
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Change in sex drive
  • Stomach upset
  • Sleep problems

Common effects of stress on your mood (1)

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation or focus
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability or anger
  • Sadness or depression

Common effects of stress on your behavior(1)

  • Overeating or undereating
  • Angry outbursts
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Tobacco use
  • Social withdrawal
  • Exercising less often

Stress, left unchecked, can contribute to health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes, mental health issues, adrenal fatigue, and increased cortisol production.(2) Ongoing daily stressors can keep your nervous system in a chronically activated state and, over time, alter brain reward/motivation pathways.

“When we are over stressed we want to reach for the comfort of more hyperpalatable foods that can induce metabolic changes that promote weight gain and body fat mass. Weight related adaptions of the metabolic, neuroendocrine and neuronal pathway can together potentiate food cravings and intake under conditions of stress, thereby causing the cycle to continue.” (1,3)

Being able to recognize common stress symptoms can give you a jump on managing them. In turn, you can take some basic steps to look after yourself—the person who will soon be caring for others. Steps we all can take include:(2,4)

  • Ensuring you get adequate rest
  • Supporting your body with healthy balanced meals, including protein, healthy carbohydrates, fiber, and fats
  • Drinking adequate water
  • Adding green drink juices to your daily intake
  • Taking dietary supplements including: B-complex vitamin, magnesium bisglyginate, omega 3, ashwagandha, probiotics, vitamin C
  • Including meditating and mindfulness work in your routine
  • Avoiding caffeine, sugar, processed foods, and alcohol

Some of this advice you may well feel you heard before and may feel idyllic as you drive toward the completion on your boards. So let me add two further pieces of advice to provide some perspective on this moment in your early career.

First, a healthy dose of stress is actually good for you and your career. The pressure of completing your boards is forcing an intensity of study you might not otherwise achieve. It is allowing you to study more efficiently so that when your knowledge is needed, it will be present for you to draw upon. It also preparing you for what will be a busy career, and very likely, a busy life. Boards are tough, but so too are the challenges to come in the future.

Second, all of us have access to a deep well of drive that is calorie-free and without the ill-effects of unhealthy stress. And, that is our passion for what we do and the people we serve. The hours you are putting in now are in service to your mission to help others. The breadth of ways hygienists can benefit our patients—as dental professionals and as health-care workers operating in the sphere of preventative health—are growing in scope every year. There has never been a better time to join our profession. If you can connect to that opportunity and mission, I think you will find it easier to fuel your studies in a healthy, sustainable way that builds the good habits you will wish to maintain for a demanding, but highly rewarding career.

We need more good hygienists to model the best we have to offer society. I’m looking forward to welcoming you into our ranks. I know you can do it, and I’m rooting for all of you.

Sara Paone, RDH, RNCP, has spent over 25 years as a practice-building registered dental hygienist, including the last 10 years as a consultant, author, and educator. Sara’s clinical work, consulting, and teaching are predicated on the belief that dentistry has a vital role to play as a primary preventative strategy for our patients’ overall health, a role driven by the systemic links between our oral and overall health. Sara’s passion is to work with patients, dental practices and teams to help them integrate this perspective for the betterment of patients’ health, and the practices of which they are a part. Sara, through her hygiene clinic, Mouth Matters, is proudly a strategic part of an Integrated Health Care Facility located in High Park, Toronto. Sara is also a co-founder of the Oral Wellness Learning (OWL) Institute in Dentistry, a teaching institute based in Oakville, Ontario, Canada rooted in oral health and its link to overall systemic wellness.


  1. Murray MT, Pizzorno J. The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. 3rd Edition, 2016, Year, p. 151.
  2. Balch PA. Prescription for Nutritional healing. Prescription for Nutritional Healing October 5, 2010 fifth edition.
  3. Hudd SS, Dumlao J, Erdmann-Sager D, Murray D, Phan E, Noukas N. Stress at college: effects on health habits, health status and self-esteem. Journal, vol. 34, no. 2, 2000, p. 217.
  4. Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty S. A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of AshwagandhaRoot in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012 Jul-Sep; 34(3): 255–262.