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Eating Disorders and Your Teeth: What’s the Effect?

Eating disorders – generally affecting more women than men – are serious illnesses in which people become fixated on how much they eat. Two of the more common eating disorders are bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa.

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by repeated, excessive eating, followed by self-induced vomiting (purging). Anorexia nervosa is characterized by an extreme fear of gaining weight, a desire to be thin, the inability to maintain a normal weight based on height and age, self-induced starvation and vomiting after anything is eaten.

Regardless of the specific eating disorder a person may suffer from, the body becomes deprived of vitamins, minerals, proteins and other nutrients that are essential for maintaining good health. In the long run, lacking vitamins and other nutrients the body needs could lead to serious injuries affecting the major organs, muscles and even the teeth and oral health.

Eating Disorders and the Oral Health Consequences

Eating disorders have severe consequences for your teeth and oral health. For example, self-induced vomiting can essentially cause a breakdown of tooth structure. Because the digestive system releases powerful acids that break down food, self-induced vomiting allows these acids to come in contact with, attack and wear-away tooth enamel during regurgitation. In addition to causing the erosion of enamel, frequent vomiting also may alter the color, length and shape of the teeth.

People with eating disorders may experience tenderness of the mouth and throat and notice swollen salivary glands. Swollen salivary glands may result in widening of the jaw and a square-like shape. Anorexia sufferers may experience weakening of the jaw bone resulting from osteoporosis, which also weakens teeth and leads to tooth loss.

Oral Symptoms of Eating Disorders

Those suffering from an eating disorder generally have an instinct to act in a secretive manner. However, when visiting the dentist, it is nearly impossible to hide the damage. Dentists can identify the “tell-tale” signs of eating disorders, such as:

  • Bad Breath
  • Tenderness in the mouth, throat and salivary glands
  • Erosion of tooth enamel
  • Dry mouth
  • Cracked, red and dry lips
  • Mouth sores
  • Highly sensitive teeth

Recovering from Your Disorder and Restoring Your Oral Health

Restoring your oral health after recovering from an eating disorder is important to your self-esteem and your general health. If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, it is imperative that you seek professional help.

Because of the devastating effect eating disorders can have on the teeth and oral health, no tooth restoration(s) should be pursued until the person has undergone treatment to overcome the disorder. In the interim, there are several steps that can be taken to lessen the effects of the acid on teeth and gums during recovery.

  1. Avoid brushing teeth immediately after vomiting. The powerful stomach acids weaken tooth enamel, and brushing causes the enamel to erode quicker.
  2. Rinse your mouth with water or a fluoride mouth rinse immediately after purging – if this habit is still continuing.
  3. Dentists also recommend brushing daily with fluoridated toothpaste, then flossing to help lessen the likelihood of enamel erosion and gum disease.
  4. A daily fluoride topical application (obtained from your dentist) may help prevent tooth decay and build stronger teeth.
  5. Temporary appliances – such as mouth guards – may be recommended to prevent additional wear.

Once recovered from the eating disorder, restoration of the damaged and worn teeth can take place. First and foremost, establishing an open and honest two-way communication with your dentist is key to regaining your smile. Advancements in dental science and materials have made tooth restoration for those who have recovered from eating disorders a reality.

However, keep in mind that permanent restoration of your smile will depend upon the extent of damage that occurred. Treatment may require dental crowns, veneers or composite fillings, or you may require more extensive therapies such as full mouth reconstruction.

Final Consideration

Although dentists can restore teeth damaged by the acid erosion caused by constant purging using crowns, composite fillings and other treatments, they cannot treat the eating disorder. What they can do is recommend psychological counseling or offer a referral to a physician.

If you or someone you know is suffering with an eating disorder, call your physician and your dentist for help.

For more information about eating disorders or to get help, contact the organizations below:

Academy for Eating Disorders

A Chance to Heal Foundation

Bulimia Nervosa Resource Guide

Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

National Eating Disorders Association