The joy of mastication: Can chewing gum be addictive?
“Every time I go to the store I have to buy a [chewing gum called] ‘Big Red’. I chew three packs every day. I love the taste, and it’s sweet. I started chewing gum excessively when she couldn’t find a job after graduation. I became depressed because I thought that with my qualifications I would find a job immediately but I did not. Since I’ve been chewing gum I have had to make visits to the dentist more than once due to tooth pain” (Tamika Wilbourn, 22-year old US college graduate).
“I used to have an addiction problem. No, I was not addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, video games or any other typical vice that you can think of. I was addicted to chewing gum. A lot of you are probably thinking, ‘I have the same problem!’ or ‘I chew a lot of gum too!’ but I’ve yet to meet someone who chews as much gum as I once did. Some might argue that using the word ‘addiction’ in this context is going a little too far; I beg to differ. I used to NEED gum. I would chew so much gum that even when my jaw started to hurt, I kept chewing. I chewed in the morning, I chewed at night, I chewed when I was bored, stressed and nervous. I needed gum more than coffee; I was a chain chewer for about 7 whole years…I always carried at least 2 packs of gum with me at all times, and made it a point to stop and buy some if I was running low. I often went through 1-2 packs per day, maybe more. I would chew a piece for 5 minutes, spit it out and chew another. No matter what I did, I could convince myself that chewing just one piece of gum was enough…After a while I didn’t even like the taste anymore. Sure I liked the initial burst of minty sweetness, but what I really craved was the chewing motion. After a while the chain chewing did not feel good anymore, it felt necessary” (Stellina Saia, US business graduate).
A few months ago, I was contacted by a researcher from an American television production company. I was told that the company was planning to make a documentary film on people that were allegedly addicted to chewing gum. They had come across my blog and wanted to know if I thought chewing gum could be addictive. I had never come across a study that had examined the chewing of gum as an addiction but added that I thought it was theoretically possible. As an occasional gum chewer myself, I answered all the questions from a personal and anecdotal perspective but was unable to respond to any of the questions from an empirical standpoint (i.e., I had no data to support a single thing that I said. Everything I said was pure speculation).
I remember being asked about why people chew gum and I said there were multiple reasons. I know that I only ever chew gum after I have eaten – using it as a way to clean my teeth and remove food that may have stuck to my teeth. Occasionally I will chew mint gum to help freshen my breath or because I like the taste of a particular gum. I also made reference to English soccer managers (most notably Alex Ferguson and Sam Allardyce) that appear to chew gum as a stress relieving activity. In fact, there appear to appear to be many cognitive benefits to mastication (i.e., chewing). A recent (2013) review by Dr. Kin-ya Kubo and colleagues in the book Senescence and Senescence-Related Disorders noted that chewing helps improve learning and memory, may help people suffering from dementia, and provide stress relief:
“Although mastication is primarily involved in food intake and digestion, it also promotes and preserves general health, including cognitive function. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission topography studies recently revealed that mastication leads to increases in cortical blood flow and activates the somatosensory, supplementary motor, and insular cortices, as well as the striatum, thalamus, and cerebellum. Masticating immediately before performing a cognitive task increases blood oxygen levels in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, important structures involved in learning and memory, thereby improving task performance. Thus, mastication may be a drug-free and simple method of attenuating the development of senile dementia and stress-related disorders that are often associated with cognitive dysfunction. Previous epidemiologic studies demonstrated that a decreased number of residual teeth, decreased denture use, and a small maximal biting force are directly related to the development of dementia, further supporting the notion that mastication contributes to maintain cognitive function”.
A study by Dr. Yoshiyuki Hirano and colleagues in a 2013 issue of Brain and Cognition showed that chewing boosts thinking and alertness and that reaction times among chewers were 10% faster than non-chewers. The research team also reported that up to eight areas of the brain are affected by chewing (most notably the areas concerning attention and movement). It has been claimed that chewing increases arousal levels and that this increased arousal causes increased temporary blood flow to the brain. Commenting on these findings to the Daily Mail, Professor Andy Smith of Cardiff University, said that: “The effects of chewing on reaction time are profound. Perhaps football managers arrived at the idea of chewing gum by accident, but they seem to be on the right track”.
There are dozens and dozens of academic papers all showing the many benefits of mastication but I didn’t come across a single one that looked at whether chewing gum can be addictive. (If you type in ‘chewing gum’ and ‘addiction’ into any academic database you simply get loads of papers about the effectiveness of chewing nicotine gum in helping smoking cessation). However, as the opening quote highlights, there are online self-confessions of ‘chewing gum addiction’. Although the benefits of chewing gum appear to greatly outweigh the disadvantages, there are a number of online articles that take great pride in pointing out the negatives.
In a 2011 article on the Organic Authority website, Jill Ettinger provided a list of reasons of why people should give up chewing gum including jaw aches (accompanied by headaches), intestinal pressure for irritable bowel syndrome sufferers, over-production of saliva, and her assertion that “most of the sugar-free chewing gum on the market is sweetened with aspartame, which has been linked to cancer, diabetes, neurological disorders, tinnitus and birth defects”. For those people that don’t chew sugar-free gum, she added that “the rest of the gum out there is typically sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, which in addition to a number of health issues (obesity, diabetes, cancer), is also one of the main causes of tooth decay”. An article in The Delphian by Valgina Cooper also claims chewing gum can be hazardous to your health (and partly based on her own chewing gum experiences). She reported:
“Did you know you could get addicted to gum? Jaws hurt. Teeth hurt because you have been popping gum all day. Millions of people chew gun but could it be an addiction? A person can be addicted to just about anything. People may buy 20 packs of gum a day because chewing gum can calm your nerves…But the taste can get you. Once you pop you can’t stop. Gum addiction can happen to you if you don’t know how to control yourself. First, you start chewing gum because you like the taste. Then you realize that you’re chewing gum when nervous or bored. It can be used to pacify you so it seems like you have something to concentrate on. Therefore the amount of gum chewed within a day increases. After this stage your body comes to a point where it needs gum all the time to feel comfortable…While many people chew gum, few realize that it can become an addiction that can leave you with serious health risks. How do you know you’ve become addicted to gum chewing? When you feel like you have to chew gum to function through the day – as I learned through my own experience”.
From what I have read on the topic, there is little in the empirical literature to suggest chewing gum can be an addiction. There is loads of anecdotal evidence that a minority of individuals chew gum excessively but little evidence among these individuals that it could be classed as an addiction. While I don’t rule out the theoretical possibility of becoming addicted to chewing gum, I have yet to see or read about a case that would fulfil my own criteria for addiction.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Brook, C. (2013). Chewing over a problem? Chomping on gum can boost alertness by 10%. Daily Mail, February 4. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2272800/Chewing-gum-GOOD-brain-boost-alertness-10.html
Cooper, V. (2003). Warning! Chewing gum can be hazardous to your health. The Delphian, December 10. Located at: http://students.adelphi.edu/delphian/2003.12.10/articles/q.shtml
Ettinger, J. (2011). Hate to burst your bubble but…9 reasons to stop chewing gum. Organic Authority, September 16. Located at: http://www.organicauthority.com/health/bubble-gums-reasons-to-stop-chewing-gum-health.html
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.
Hirano, Y., Obata, T., Takahashi, H., Tachibana, A., Kuroiwa, D., Takahashi, T., … & Onozuka, M. (2013). Effects of chewing on cognitive processing speed. Brain and Cognition, 81(3), 376-381.
Kubo, K. Y., Chen, H., & Onozuka, M. (2013). The relationship between mastication and cognition. In Wang, Z. & Inuzuka (Eds.), Senescence and Senescence-Related Disorders. InTech. Located at: http://www.intechopen.com/books/senescence-and-senescence-related-disorders
Saia S. (2013). How I stopped chewing gum. My Yoghurt Addiction, February 25. Located at: http://myyogurtaddiction.com/2013/02/25/how-i-stopped-chewing-gum/
Posted on June 4, 2014, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Eating addiction, Obsession, Pain, Psychology and tagged Behavioural addiction, Bubble gum addiction, Chewing and cognitive health, Chewing gum addiction, Eating addiction, Mastication benefits, Mastication disadvantages. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.