WHEN WE THINK of the damage that eating disorders can do, we probably first think of the psychological toll and life-threatening malnutrition. However, eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia can also be very hard on the oral health of those who struggle with them. Healthy teeth and gums require a variety of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients in addition to regular brushing and flossing, so not eating well or enough is a serious problem.
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by extremely limited food intake, which may be paired with compulsive exercising, purging, or even both. The way anorexia harms oral health is through malnutrition. The bones of the jaw can develop osteoporosis without sufficient nutrients, which increases the risk of tooth loss. Without enough fluids, the salivary glands can’t produce enough saliva, resulting in dry mouth. Dry mouth makes both tooth decay and gum disease more likely because we need our saliva to neutralize acids and wash away food particles. Finally, without the nutrients to keep the immune system strong, the gums become more vulnerable to bleeding.
Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by first overeating, then forcibly purging food through vomiting or laxatives. This puts strong stomach acid in frequent contact with the tooth enamel. Even though enamel is the hardest substance in the human body, it is highly vulnerable to erosion from acid. It isn’t uncommon for someone struggling with bulimia to experience tooth discoloration, decay, and even tooth loss due to their disorder.
We all need good oral hygiene routines to keep our teeth and gums healthy, our breath minty fresh, and our smiles sparkling, but it’s especially important for those battling with or recovering from an eating disorder. Anyone whose teeth are frequently exposed to stomach acid can minimize erosion by rinsing with water initially and then waiting thirty minutes before brushing. It’s important to give the saliva time to neutralize leftover acid so that brushing doesn’t cause additional erosion. Here are a few signs to watch for if you’re worried someone you love might be developing an eating disorder:
An eating disorder is a mental illness, and recovery is often a long road that requires help and support. That could come in the form of sympathetic family members or friends or licensed psychiatrists. Another great resource is the National Eating Disorders Helpline. And, of course, dental health professionals are always here to help patients keep their teeth and gums healthy through mental and physical health challenges they face.