Every person is unique – we come in a myriad of races, ages, genders, abilities, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds. But certain illnesses – like eating disorders – don’t discriminate. As many as 28.8 million Americans from any demographic suffer from an eating disorder. In fact, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), reports that eating disorders have the second-highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Each year, 10,200 deaths are the direct result of an eating disorder – that’s one death every 52 minutes. Eating disorders are a complex and serious condition that affects every organ system in the body.
This week marks National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NED) and its theme, Every Body Has a Seat at the Table, aims to reflect on and celebrate the positive steps people have made towards accepting themselves and others, as well as to apply the lessons they’ve learned from setbacks and challenges. Overcoming an eating disorder is possible, but it’s often a struggle so access to support and treatment early on is important.
And, if you’re wondering why a dental office is paying attention to eating disorders, then you might be surprised to learn that dental professionals are often among the first to notice some of the warning signs of eating disorders in our patients.
Eating Disorders & Oral Health
Eating disorders can affect every part of the body from the brain to the bones to the internal organs – and the mouth is no different. Bulimia the most common eating disorder noticed by dental professionals because of the effects purging has on the teeth. Additionally, because patients typically only see their dentist twice a year, any dramatic changes in weight or appearance may be more noticeable to a provider, than with someone the patient sees on a daily basis.
Patients who are suffering from bulimia and the self-induced vomiting that comes with it, expose the teeth to an excessive amount of acid, which in turn can lead to staining, discoloration, cavities, broken teeth, and tooth loss if left untreated. For patients who struggle with anorexia, the lack of nutrients in their diets can point dentists in the right direction – insufficient calcium and vitamin D can lead to tooth decay and gum disease, while insufficient iron can create sores in the mouth.
Other warning signs that a dental visit may reveal include;
- Bad breath,
- Tender mouth, throat and salivary glands,
- Eroded tooth enamel,
- Teeth that are worn and appear almost translucent,
- Bruising on the roof of the mouth,
- Mouth sores,
- Dry mouth,
- Cracked lips,
- Bleeding gums, and
- Sensitive teeth.
Dentists are doctors, and as such, only want the best for their patients. We want our patients to feel safe and comfortable in our care and can point patients in the right direction for seeking help towards recovery from eating disorders, as well as ways to mitigate the damage to their oral health while they recover.
We understand that eating disorders are very personal and often, a secret the patient keeps from those around them. However, we hope that this information can help you or someone you know to begin the road to recovery from an eating disorder. For free help 24/7 or for more information and resources, please visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org, and keep reading below to learn more.
Common Eating Disorders
While each person is different, the most common categories of diagnosis for eating disorders and their characteristics are:
- Anorexia Nervosa (AN): characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss.
- Bulimia Nervosa (BN): characterized by cycles of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting or purging, in an attempt to counteract binge eating.
- Binge Eating Disorder (BED): characterized by recurrent binge eating without the regular use of compensatory behaviors.
- Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED): feeding or eating disorders that cause significant distress or impairment, but does not meet the criteria for specific feeding or eating disorders.
Warning Signs of Eating Disorders
A number of warning signs may appear for those who are suffering from an eating disorder, but luckily, recovery is possible and help is available. It is important to communicate with loved ones you think may have an eating disorder sooner rather than later, as the side effects an eating disorder can create can be damaging to their physical, emotional, and mental health.
Common signs of eating disorders include but are not limited to:
- Preoccupation with food, weight, calories, dieting and/or body image,
- Development of abnormal, secretive, extreme or ritualized food and eating habits,
- Withdrawal from friends and activities, especially at mealtimes,
- Evidence of binge eating, such as the disappearance of large quantities of food,
- Evidence of purging behaviors, including frequent trips to the bathroom after meals, self-induced vomiting, periods of fasting, and/or the abuse of laxatives, diet pills, or diuretics,
- Compulsive or excessive exercise,
- Discoloration or staining of the teeth,
- Feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety and/or irritability.
It can be overwhelming to see a loved one struggling with a potential eating disorder or disordered eating, but by beginning that conversation, you can help your loved one onto the path of recovery by sharing resources and treatment options.
The previous two sections of information are sourced from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, help is available by phone at 800-931-2237, by web at nationaleatingdisorders.org/helplinechat, by email at [email protected], or by texting “NEDA” to 741-741 for 24/7 crisis support.