In the United States alone, at least 30 million individuals(1) suffer from eating disorders.
Most people know that eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia can seriously impact the general physical and mental health of their victims – but that’s not all…
Because of the way eating disorders can deprive the body of nutrients, and erode the surface of the teeth, they are strongly implicated in oral health as well.
Let’s take a look at the damage eating disorders can cause to teeth and gums…
Anorexia: Decreased Nutrient Intake Weakens Teeth
With anorexia nervosa, sufferers restrict their daily calories to the point where they are not receiving enough nutrients, thus affecting oral health.
For teeth to remain healthy, an individual needs foods with sufficient iron, Vitamin B, and calcium. Without these vital nutrients, teeth can decay while the risk of gum disease increases (2).
Iron deficiency can lead to open sores in the mouth, while B3 deficiency can lead to canker sores (3). Without adequate calcium and Vitamin D, you are liable to suffer tooth decay. Often, gingivitis, or swelling of the gums, develops (4).
In addition, anorexia patients often suffer from dehydration, which can cause dry and painful mouth tissue and lips.
Bulimia Nervosa: Acid from Purging Damages Teeth
Patients with the purging type of bulimia nervosa will eat food and then “purge” it, often through vomiting. According to studies, the “most extensive” oral health issues are associated with the effects of bulimia (5).
With the frequent vomiting, teeth come into frequent contact with stomach acid. This can break down the enamel quickly, and lead to teeth that are brittle and translucent.
Vomiting is traumatic not only for teeth, but for the inside of the patient’s mouth, which can become red, cracked and cut with the constant exposure to acid.
Occasionally, patients who purge will over-brush their teeth to compensate, which can also cause damage to enamel (6).
Bulimia has been associated with degenerative arthritis in the TMJ (temporomandibular joint) of the jaw, which can cause extreme pain and discomfort, in addition to chronic headaches.
Chewing and Spitting Disorder: Damaging Digestive Acids
Though not as well known as anorexia and bulimia, Chewing and Spitting Disorder can be quite harmful to oral health as well. In CHSP, patients will chew food and then spit it out without swallowing it. They will not receive nutrition from the food, and a few processes will result in heightened tooth decay.
First of all, CHSP sufferers will often chew food that is high in sugar, which accelerates tooth decay in general.
Secondly, when people chew, the brain send signals to the digestive system to prepare acids for digestion. When the food is spit out ,instead of swallowed, the acid can lead to ulcers in the stomach and mouth. CHSP is linked to tooth decay, cavities, and swollen glands (7).
How to Protect Teeth and Reverse DamageMore than anything, it’s important for those suffering from eating disorders to seek help from trained mental health professionals who can help them recover. During recovery, experts recommend the following (8):
- Rinse mouth with water after every purging episode to decrease the danger of enamel-decay from acid.
- Use a re-mineralizing agent like sodium fluoride gel (9) to help build the enamel back up on the teeth.
- Wait an hour after purging to brush teeth, as brushing teeth immediately might actually scrub the acids deeper into the enamel.
- See a dental health professional frequently while in recovery to check up on teeth. Dentists may also be able to apply topical fluoride (10) treatment to halt further decay.
Though eating disorders can wreak havoc on oral health, there is hope for sufferers. The first step is seeking mental health guidance to treat the eating disorder.
With both a mental health and a compassionate dental team, those afflicted with eating disorders can regain their physical, mental, and oral health.