Some of the everyday habits that positively affect brain function can be quite surprising. For example, simply chewing gum may provide a temporary brain boost through several different mechanisms. Scientists have studied the relationship of chewing gum, stress and memory over the past 20 years. Research reveals that this seemingly mindless task can have a variety of flavorful effects, so to speak.
To begin to unwrap the data, studies show you do not need to stick to Carefree gum in order to decrease stress. In one study, young adults were asked to chew any stick of gum for at least 5 minutes daily for two weeks. In comparison to a control group, the gum chewers had decreased scores on anxiety, depression and fatigue.1 In another study, participants chewed gum for 20 minutes and had blood serotonin levels drawn before and after chewing. The serotonin levels were significantly increased after chewing.2 This neurochemical is known to be important in the mediation of stress and anxiety, suggesting it’s important role in the reduced stress associated with gum chewing.
Psychological stress tends to negatively impact performance so that a quick gum chew can be helpful, but for some, any benefits are limited to the time before a challenging task is attempted. The reason is unclear, but the expected stress reduction is sometimes lost during task performance.3,4 We can speculate that chewing gum with a vengeance distracts from total focus or that chewing gum has little benefit in high anxiety situations.
In addition to stress reduction, chewing gum assists with the recall of events and the recognition of known tasks.5 These types of memory are localized throughout the brain, but particularly in the medial and temporal lobes. Functional MRI imaging has shown that chewing gum activates the medial temporal lobes.6 The mechanism of this activation may include increased blood flow to the brain.7 Yet, considering that stress tends to consolidate memories8 (we often recall traumatic events best) and chewing gum lessens stress, it follows that chewing gum may negatively impact long-term memory. The fact that your favorite flavor of baseball bubblegum brings back a flood of childhood memories seems to contradict this statement, but those happy memories are likely based on an association with the enjoyable smell and taste of your favorite bubblegum9 and are less about chewing.
Somewhat “gum in cheek”, it turns out this whole subject is a little gummy and not “as simple as walking and chewing gum”.
- Sasaki-Otomaru A, et al. Effect of regular gum chewing on levels of anxiety, mood and fatigue in healthy young adults. Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health. 2011; 7:133-139.
- Kamiy K, et al. Prolonged gum chewing evokes activation of the ventral part of prefrontal cortex and supporession of nociceptive responses: involvement of the serotonergic system. Journal of Medical and Dental Sciences. 2010; 57:35-43.
- Allen AP, Smith AP. A review of the evidence that chewing gum affects stress, alertness and cognition. Journal of Behavioral and Neuroscience Research. 2011; 9(1): 7-23.
- Tucha LK, Koerts J. Gum chewing and cognition: an overview. Neuroscience & Medicine. 2012; 3(3):243-250.
- Hirano Y, et al. Effects of chewing in working memory processing. Neuroscience Letters. 2008; 436(2):189-192.
- Choi YH, et al. The brain activation pattern of the medial temporal lobe during chewing gum: a functional MRI study. Neural Regeneration Research. 2017; 12(5):812-814.
- Hasegawa Y, et al. Influence of voluntary control of masticatory side and rhythm on cerebral hemodynamics. Clinical Oral Investigations. 2011; 15(1):113-118.
- Bos MGN, et al. Stress enhances reconsolidation of declarative memory. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014; 46:102-113.
- Moss M, et al. Modulation of cognitive performance and mood by aromas of peppermint and ylang-ylang. International Journal of Neuroscience. 2008; 118:59-77.