Eating disorders are a serious health problem, however, most people suffer in silence. Eating disorders can do a great deal of damage to a person’s body and brain functions, but you may not realize the impacts an eating disorder can also have on a person’s oral health. Telltale signs will be obvious to a dental professional and can range from slight to severe. Very often, a dentist or dental hygienist is the first person to detect and diagnose these disorders. According to the American Dental Association, 10 million Americans are affected by serious eating disorders, and the manner in which these eating disorders affect the mouth will prompt those with disorders to get dental help before any other type of aid. Although more prevalent in females, especially teens and young adults, eating disorders can affect anyone. We take a look at what eating disorders are, and how they affect oral health.
What are the types of eating disorders?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. All three of these disorders will have negative effects on the mouth.
- Anorexia: This diagnosis typically involves an extreme fear of gaining weight or a dread of becoming fat. Even though these individuals may be very thin or even extremely underweight, they see themselves as “fat”. They may attempt to reach or maintain what they think is their perfect body weight by drastically limiting their intake of food, excessively exercising and, after eating, may feel compelled to cause themselves to vomit, use laxatives, enemas or diuretics to rid their body of excess weight.
- Bulimia: Like anorexia, bulimia is generally associated with a fear of being overweight. Bulimia is described as excessive overeating several times a week or, in the most severe cases, several times a day. This uncontrollable urge will cause unhealthy eating of sweet and fatty foods and is also followed by purging that includes self-induced vomiting and diuretic, laxative and enema use. This is often referred to as “binging and purging”. Studies have shown that 89 percent of bulimics show signs of mouth and teeth damage.
- Binge Eating or Compulsive Overeating:Binge eaters have previously been classified as food addicts. They will overeat over short periods of time and cannot control these urges; they are different from bulimics in that they typically do not use purging techniques to rid their bodies of the excess weight they incur. Instead, they will feel extreme guilt and remorse that causes them to continue the behavior. Binge eating has been identified as equally prevalent in women and men.
How do eating disorders affect your mouth and body?
All of these eating disorders will have negative effects on the body. The deficiency of vitamins, minerals and nutrients associated with these disorders can cause the body to shut down and fail to function properly. Potential health issues include:
- Weight loss (or gain if you are an overeater).
- Hair loss.
- Lower body temperature.
- Irregular or absent menstrual cycles in women.
- Heart problems, kidney failure and possible death.
The negative effects of vitamin and nutrient deficiencies will also be reflected in the mouth. Without the proper nutrition, gums and other soft tissue inside the mouth may bleed easily. The glands that produce saliva may swell and individuals may experience chronic dry mouth. Vomiting frequently can also affect teeth. That’s because when strong stomach acid repeatedly flows over teeth, the tooth’s enamel can be lost to the point that the teeth change in color, shape and length. The edges of teeth become thin and break off easily. Eating hot or cold food or drink may become uncomfortable. The telltale oral signs of eating disorders include:
- Dry mouth and enlarged salivary glands.
- Cracked, dry lips and mouth sores.
- Teeth erosion.
- Cold and hot sensitivity in teeth.
What is the recommended treatment?
People suffering from eating disorders often seek care from their dentist because of problems they notice with their mouth and teeth. A dentist or dental hygienist is trained to identify the oral signs of a serious eating disorder. They will counsel the patient on oral and bodily damage and recommend treatment by a mental health professional. Meanwhile, they will help alleviate the mouth and teeth problems from which the patient is suffering. For example, those who purge by vomiting are cautioned not to brush immediately after since this will enhance the damaging effects of the stomach acids on the teeth. Instead, waiting about a half hour to brush and using a neutral paste such as baking soda are recommended. Preventive and restorative work can include:
- Instruction in proper oral hygiene.
- Fluoride treatment plans, based on the individual.
- Dry mouth remedies.
- Sensitivity treatment by restoring teeth with severe enamel loss.
- Frequent preventive dental visits to monitor progress.
The manner in which eating disorders affect your mouth is secondary to the damage that will occur to the body. Seeking help from a mental health specialist, however, is often difficult because of the shame and guilt associated with these disorders. Patients who seek treatment from a dentist for tooth damage and sensitivity will be assessed not only for mouth and teeth issues, but also for problems with their overall wellbeing. This may be the first crucial step toward getting help.
If you have any questions about eating disorders and your oral health, call Winning Smiles to schedule an appointment with your dentist – 716-332-2444.