How an Eating Disorder Can Impact Your Oral Health

an Eating Disorder Can Impact Your Oral Health

More than 10 million Americans are living with an eating disorder, yet less than half will ever seek treatment for it, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. If you think that could never be you or someone close to you, consider this:

  • A 2007 study surveyed 9,282 Americans about an array of mental health conditions, including eating disorders. About 2 percent of the men and 3.5 percent of the women met the criteria for a binge eating disorder at some point in their lives, which makes it three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined and more widespread than breast cancer or HIV.
  • A 2016 study found that up 40 percent of overweight girls and 37 percent of overweight boys are teased about their weight by peers or family members, and that teasing predicts weight gain, binge eating, and extreme weight control measures.

I’m addressing this subject here, first, because we clearly need to be doing more as a society to resolve this crisis. If you aren’t directly affected, someone close to you almost certainly is. Second, and not insignificantly, an eating disorder can be disastrous to your oral health.

In fact, changes in the mouth are often the first physical signs of an eating disorder. So, hygienists, dentists, and periodontists are, in many cases, the first line of protection.

The effects are swift and severe

Denial is to an eating disorder what a lit match is to a parched forest in the high heat of summer. Almost immediately, it takes over and blunts judgement. From the inside, it may appear as though you’re in full control of your body. In truth, dental issues can begin cropping up from just six months of consistent eating disorder behavior, such as restricting calories and purging.

Here’s a look at some of the most common ways an eating disorder can ravage your mouth:

  • Consuming too little food usually leads to a nutrient deficiency, which can impact your oral health in several negative ways. A lack of calcium, for one, promotes tooth decay and gum disease. Not enough iron can lead to sores on the inside of your mouth. And too little vitamin B3 (niacin) can contribute to persistent bad breath and the growth of canker sores. Your gums can also become red and swollen, which is usually a sign of gingivitis, the earliest phase of gum disease.
  • When we vomit, strong stomach acid washes over our teeth. When it happens frequently over a sustained period, eventually the enamel (the tooth’s protective outer layer) will erode and your teeth will become brittle, translucent, and weak. The edges of your teeth will then begin to break off easily. Trying to compensate by vigorously brushing and rinsing after vomiting can actually make those problems even worse.
  • Constant purging can lead to redness, scratches, and cuts inside your mouth, especially what’s referred to as the soft palate, or the upper surface. A frequent binge-and-purge cycle can also enlarge the salivary glands to the extent that they become painful and visible. It’s also common to develop degenerative arthritis within the temporomandibular joint in the jaw, which is the spot where the jaw hinges to the skull.

Recovery is possible

Those effects, among others, can be lingering and even permanent. The key to ensuring as much of a complete recovery as possible is early detection. Reading this blog post counts in that regard, because recognition begins with awareness, which starts with arming yourself with the right information and seeking appropriate guidance from your dentist or periodontist.

It’s important to understand that frequent and honest communication with your dentist or periodontist is critical to the recovery process. Anything said between the patient and doctor is confidential, so the exam room can be treated as a safe place to disclose past and ongoing struggles with an eating disorder. Anything said during those conversations will only be used to help you.

The frequency is just as important as the openness of those talks because, in spite of the best intentions, binging and purging is a difficult cycle to break, which makes relapse a likely possibility. So the closer you remain in communication with your dentist or periodontist, the better positioned they’ll be to adapt their treatment plan accordingly.

In between those appointments, should you purge again, rinse with water or a sugar-free mouthwash immediately after. But don’t brush for at least an hour. Doing it any earlier could put you at risk for scrubbing any residual stomach acid even deeper into the enamel.

The first step

Above all, remember that you’re not alone and recovery is possible. As isolated and hopeless as you, or someone you know, may feel, all it takes to begin shifting course is to trust in just one person. If I can be that person, email me directly at to schedule an appointment.