Eating Disorders and Oral Health: The Impact Bulimia & Anorexia Can Have on the Mouth
It’s no secret that what you eat can have an impact on your oral health. Eating lots of high-sugar or starchy foods can lead to tooth decay and gum disease, while a diet high in acidic foods and drinks can cause tooth sensitivity and erosion of the enamel.
But did you know that eating disorders can also have a seriously detrimental effect on oral health? The habits and behaviors that are symptomatic of these health conditions can cause a variety of issues affecting the teeth, gums, and soft tissues of the mouth.
Types of Eating Disorders
There are three primary types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. While eating disorders can affect anyone, they are most frequently diagnosed in adolescents and women.
Anorexia nervosa, commonly shortened to just anorexia, is characterized by extreme anxiety or fear regarding weight gain. Individuals with anorexia severely restrict their intake of food to the point of starving themselves. They also often exercise excessively and abuse medications such as laxatives and diuretics to rid their body of calories.
Often referred to simply as bulimia, people suffering from this eating disorder go through cycles of bingeing and purging. During a binge, they consume thousands of calories in one sitting, often feeling out of control. During the purge, they force themselves to regurgitate the binged food. Sometimes bulimics also use laxatives or enemas to force the body to get rid of the food consumed during the binge.
Binge Eating Disorder
Similar to bulimia, binge eating disorder (BED) involves the consumption of extreme amounts of food within a relatively short time frame. The primary difference between BED and bulimia is that BED sufferers typically do not attempt to get rid of the binged food through vomiting or laxatives. After the binge, individuals with BED are frequently plagued by feelings of acute guilt.
Impact of Eating Disorders on Teeth & the Mouth
Eating disorders can cause a range of serious health issues, including several different oral health concerns. Oftentimes, eating disorders are actually first recognized by oral health professionals because of the dental symptoms they present. In fact, 89% of people with bulimia have signs that show up in the mouth, such as tooth erosion and sores.
Oral health complications from eating disorders include:
- Erosion of tooth enamel
- Dental cavities
- Changes in tooth shape, size, and color
- Enlargement of the glands that produce saliva
- Tooth sensitivity to hot and cold
- Fungal or bacterial infection of the outside of the mouth,
- Xerostomia (dry mouth due to lack of saliva)
- Trauma to the roof of the mouth
- Lesions on soft tissues
These oral health effects of eating disorders are caused by several primary factors, such as repeated exposure of the mouth to stomach acid (as a result of purging through regurgitation) and nutritional deficiencies (through restricted intake of food).
Oral Health & Eating Disorders: What Your Dentist Can Do
One of the most helpful things a dentist can do for a patient with an eating disorder, whether they are undiagnosed or in recovery, is to offer detailed instructions in proper oral hygiene. For example, bulimics should not brush their teeth directly after throwing up, as this can strip away weakened enamel. Rather, they should rinse with a baking soda-based mixture to neutralize the stomach acid.
Additionally, dentists can provide a customized treatment plan for any existing oral health problems related to the eating disorder. Restorative work that dentists can perform for patients recovering from eating disorders includes:
- Fluoride treatment plans, based on individual needs
- Remedies for xerostomia (dry mouth)
- Restorative enamel treatments for severe enamel loss and tooth sensitivity
- Fillings or root canals to treat decayed teeth
- Gum treatments for periodontitis or other forms of gum disease
- Veneers for severely damaged teeth
Along with any restorative treatments, frequent preventive dental visits may be necessary to monitor progress and identify any other problems that arise.
Getting Help for Oral Health Problems Related to an Eating Disorder
A dentist can treat the oral health issues associated with an eating disorder, such as deteriorated enamel, cavities, and infections, but they cannot treat the underlying causes of the eating disorder. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, it’s critical to partner with both your dentist and your doctor to treat both the symptoms and the underlying causes.
To schedule an appointment to discuss any dental concerns you might have with one of the skilled and compassionate dentists at Covington Center for Family Dentistry, please call (678) 671-5529 or fill out our online contact form.
We look forward to getting to know you and your family!