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Humans have been finding things to chew on for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks and Mayans chewed on tree resin, while the first “chewing gum” was made in the 1800s from a type of rubber known as chicle (yup, the same stuff Chiclets were named after!). While today’s gum tastes a lot better, the ancient Greeks and Mayans may have been on to something? studies suggest the ancient chewers may have felt less stress than their non-gum-chewing counterparts.

For starters, chewing gum is associated with reduced anxiety and lower cortisol levels. The stress relief can occur almost immediately, but has long-term effects, too. In one study, participants who chewed gum twice a day for fourteen days rated their anxiety as significantly less than the non-chewers. And not only are gum-chewers less stressed, they may be more alert, too. In another study, people who chewed gum while completing memory-related tasks had quicker reaction times and a higher sustained attention span than non-chewers.

It’s true that chewing gum has a lot of superpowers (perhaps it needs to be the star of its own comic book), but how does it work? It may not be the act of chewing that does it? in one study, people who pretended to chew didn’t experience the same benefits. Although it’s unclear exactly why gum chewing relieves stress, it could have to do with flavor, and research suggests flavored gum (as opposed to standard gum base) increases arousal in the brain. Gum-chewing can also stimulate the senses by involving smell, taste, and touch, which may explain why it’s been shown to increase alertness and improve mood.

Just be sure to stick with sugar-free gum, which contains fewer calories and (you guessed it!) sugar. Sugar-free gum has been shown to help clean teeth and reduce cavities, as well as improve bad breath (now that’s stressful!).

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