I went to a new dentist the other day. I hate going to the dentist, but I especially hate new ones. I hate the smell of the dental office, I hate the routine of taking images of my teeth, and I hate that a new dentist will explore my mouth for the first time, looking for any flaws they may be able to cash in on. What I hate more than almost anything though, is when the new dentist, with hands in my mouth, exclaims, “your teeth are very worn for someone your age.”
My teeth are warn in a specific way because I used to make myself throw up. Not every day, but often enough. For about three years, I vacillated between throwing up consistently and not. I would starve myself for awhile, then inevitably binge, then stick my toothbrush far enough down my throat that I’d throw up. I got pretty good at it, too. It’s gross, I know. It was lonely too, and wrong in a way I knew was obvious but couldn’t stop. I was like a rich kid who can’t help themselves from stealing. My eating disorder was an addiction and I didn’t really care how gross it was.
But my body suffered in a lot of ways, and one way that I didn’t really think about at the time, was my teeth. I didn’t see a dentist for a few years in college, and when I finally tracked down one that would take my crappy insurance, I had a lot of problems. The beginning stages of gingivitis. Half a dozen cavities. Warn enamel, particularly on the inner part of my lower teeth, making them sensitive to heat or cold. The hygienist frowned. She knew why my teeth were bad. I grew anxious, not wanting to hear how bad my teeth were, not wanting to know how much it would cost to fix, not wanting to endure any more scraping and poking and drilling and shame.
“Your teeth are very warn,” she said, handing me a special toothpaste for my sensitive gums. “Use this for the next month or so.” She handed me a pamphlet about throwing up and stomach acid. “Read this, and call us if you have any questions.” She seemed tired and half-hearted. I couldn’t look in her eyes. I went home and started using the special toothpaste. I stopped throwing up for awhile again, afraid that I could really damage my teeth. Because I was still living with my eating disorder, I leaned on other things: diuretics, appetite suppressants, excessive amounts of strong, black coffee. A few months later, I sought treatment, and my doctors warned me, extensively, about the damage my stomach acid could wreck on my teeth.
I was lucky in that I wasn’t throwing up every day, and I was able to stop. My only lasting damage was a bunch of cavities, a root canal, and some warn enamel. But people who purge for much longer have it worse. Vomit is especially bad for teeth because it contains stomach acids that are strong and corrosive. They’re meant to break down food in your stomach and they do a marvelous job at that. But, stomach acid can, over time, break down teeth as well. According to Dr. Matthew Stover, DMD common side effects of purging include:
1. Cavities: binging and purging can easily lead to tooth decay. If you don’t get your cavities filled, you may lose the tooth. And brushing your teeth directly after throwing up can actually increase your risk of eroding your teeth and developing cavities.
2. Brittle Teeth: Erosion can make your teeth look yellow or glassy. Bulimia can also make your teeth chip and shorten. People who have thrown up over long periods of time usually experience brittle teeth.
3. Swollen Salivary Glands: Salivary glands are on the sides of each cheek. They produce saliva and help protect your teeth against decay. Your jaws will swell if your salivary glands are affected, but this swelling will diminish if or when you stop purging.
4. Mouth Sores: Stomach acid can wear away at the skin on the sides and roof of your mouth as well as your throat. When I threw up, I liked that I was sore because it helped me not eat. But at times, I felt like I had a constant sore throat.
5. Sensitive Teeth: As enamel wears away, your teeth will become more sensitive, especially to hot or cold food. This is something your dentist can help address once you stop purging through bonding, crowns, or veneers.
Even after I learned about how bad purging was for my teeth, I didn’t stop right away. Eating disorders are mental disorders, and they’re inherently not rational. Purging was bad for my teeth, my body, my psyche, my brain, and my social life. My teeth are just one part of me that suffered, but the damage is lasting. The only thing that really helped me stop purging for good was seeking treatment and ongoing mental healthcare. If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, it is extremely important to seek professional help.