Eating Disorders Affect Fertility

They've Been Around Forever

Eating disorders have been around since the time of the Romans, maybe even before. Even though anorexia nervosa has been long recognized by psychologists and behavioral scientists, it wasn't until the last part of the 20th Century that it really developed into an epidemic.

It is a disease that is related to the culture we live in and it is worsened by the pressure to conform to an unrealistic image. The first decade of the 21st Century has seen eating disorders escalate and it has now spread to children as young as five and six as well as to seniors in their 70s and 80s.

Most of them are female, although male anorexia numbers are picking up as well. The average age of the bulk of the victims of eating disorders is between 14 and 25 - the period of time when young women are in their childbearing years.

Unplanned Pregnancies

Eating disorders profoundly affect fertility and, if a woman with an eating disorder does manage to conceive, then her baby is at high risk for any number of problems, including death.

A study in Norway revealed that many young women with anorexia nervosa are having babies, even though they are not having periods or having irregular periods. Most of these women are having unplanned pregnancies because they don't believe they can conceive.

Anorexia Nervosa

When we think about eating disorders, the first name that comes up is usually anorexia nervosa. It is the one with the most serious outcomes and the one that has the most obvious physical signs. Although most people believe anorexics choose to be what they are, the reality is that it is a mental disease that is exacerbated by a distorted view of body image.

Excessive dieting, self-starvation, over-exercising and the need to control weight are all characteristics of anorexia. The mental illness portion of eating disorders is reflected in the belief that even though she is dangerously thin, a woman will continue to see herself as fat and needing to lose weight. Obsessive compulsive behaviors and the striving to be perfect are other motivating factors.

Bulima Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is even more common than anorexia, however, since it is a disorder that can be effectively hidden from view most people with this eating disorder are not discovered for a long time. Bulimia involves binge eating and then vomiting or using laxatives to purge and rid the body of excess calories.

Even though a woman with bulimia looks normal, she has a very dangerous illness that can take the same toll in many respects as anorexia does.

What are the Effects of an Eating Disorder?

The side effects of eating disorders are myriad and they include:

· Fatigue

· Constipation

· Abdominal pain

· Anxiety

· Depression

· Hair loss

· Tooth decay

· Damage to the heart, liver and kidneys

· Amenorrhea

· Infertility

· Death

The Effects on Fertility and Reproduction

The serious effects of eating disorders on a woman's fertility are striking. Since anorexics tend to suffer with amenorrhea (cessation of menstruation) that comes with extreme weight loss and low body fat they may have a harder time conceiving.

However, they do continue to ovulate, even though they are not bleeding. Reduced calorie intake, excessive exercise and psychological stress are all factors in amenorrhea. Nearly half of women who are bulimics experience amenorrhea as well. If a woman has gone without a menstrual period for a long time she may never have one due to the permanent damage done to her internal organs.

Other factors that affect fertility and reproduction - from fertilization of the egg through carrying a pregnancy to term - include the following:

· poor diet

· stress

· depression

· low libido

· reduced egg quality

· poor uterine environment

· ovarian failure

When an Anorexic Conceives - Pregnancy Risks

If an anorexic conceives, the pregnancy risks are very high. Complications abound for both mother and baby.

· Delayed fetal growth

· Placental separation

· Miscarriage

· Stillbirth or fetal death

· Gestational diabetes

· Jaundice

· Respiratory problems

· Preeclampsia

· Premature labor

· Low birth weight

· Low amniotic fluid

· Birth defects - most notably blindness and mental retardation

· If a woman uses laxative and diuretics, then malnutrition is a risk for both mother and baby.

· If the baby is carried to term then breastfeeding can be problematic

· Post-partum depression is more serious

If there is any good news for women with eating disorders who either want to have children or find themselves pregnant, it is that when eating habits are corrected through treatment, statistics indicate that between 75 to 80 percent go on to conceive. The heavy balance in this equation is that the pregnancy risks don't go away.


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