Eating Disorders and Infertility
Women with eating disorders often have a hard time trying to conceive. In fact, fertility problems are a common side effect of an eating disorder. It is estimated that as many as 1 in 5 patients at an infertility clinic is there as the result of an eating disorder.
Eating Disorder Types
One of the best-known eating disorders is anorexia nervosa. People with anorexia have an extremely distorted sense of body image and therefore deprive themselves of food in an effort to be thin. Even when an anorexic reaches a weight that is extremely unhealthy, she will continue to think that she is fat and needs to lose weight. Other anorexia symptoms can include strange eating habits, food avoidance and excessive exercise. Some anorexics will also have obsessive-compulsive disorder or may be perfectionists.
Unlike anorexia, people suffering from bulimia nervosa commonly do not appear to have an eating disorder. This is because bulimics are usually able to maintain a healthy weight. However, bulimia involves binge eating and then purging the food, either by vomiting or through the use of laxatives. Because the bulimia symptoms are not as visible as the signs of anorexia, it is often easier for this eating disorder to go undetected. A larger number of women tend to suffer from bulimia (about 2 to 3 per cent of the population) than they do anorexia (about 1 to 2 per cent of the population). It is not uncommon for bulimics to have substance abuse problems, as well.
Another eating disorder that is not as widely recognized as anorexia and bulimia is compulsive overeating. While this disorder is similar to bulimia, compulsive overeating is not the same disorder. Compulsive overeaters will binge on food but will not purge afterwards. As a result, most compulsive overeaters are overweight. Often, this extreme eating is accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame.
Harming Your Body
All three types of eating disorders have numerous health problems associated with them. Due to the unhealthy weight and/or lack of nutrition, a person with an eating disorder can damage their major organs and throw their hormonal systems out of whack. Since these are not just physical but mental illnesses as well, anorexics, bulimics and compulsive overeaters are more likely to suffer from stress, anxiety and depression.
All of these factors combined can make conception, fertilization of an egg, implantation and carrying a pregnancy to term very difficult and, in some cases, impossible. A poor diet as well as stress and depression can also contribute to the development of other fertility problems such as low libido and polycystic ovarian syndrome.
Because of the dramatic weight loss that occurs with anorexia, many anorexics stop getting their period, thereby making it virtually impossible to get pregnant. In some cases, women who have been suffering from anorexia for years may never start their periods again because of the permanent damage they have done to their body.
Just some of the infertility problems associated with eating disorders include:
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Reduced egg quality
- Ovarian failure
- Poor uterine environment
Anyone who suffers from an eating disorder is strongly encouraged to seek help and treatment before they get pregnant. Getting pregnant while still battling an eating disorder can be detrimental to both your health and your baby’s health. Women with active anorexia are more vulnerable to exhaustion and depression during pregnancy as a result of malnutrition.
Because they are able to maintain a healthy weight, bulimics are more likely to get pregnant while still suffering from their eating disorder. However, the constant purging of food can result in both baby and mother not getting the right nutrients, making it difficult to carry a child to term. One study even showed that bulimics were two times more likely than healthy women to miscarry.
Getting pregnant while suffering from an eating disorder increases the risk of:
- Gestational diabetes
- Labor complications
- Needing a c-section
- Postpartum Depression (bulimics are especially vulnerable to this)
- Infant death within the first month after birth
- Baby being born with a low birth weight
- Low APGAR scores
- Low amniotic fluid
- Placental separation
- Birth defects, especially blindness and mental retardation
As many as 75 to 80% of women will conceive after undergoing successful treatment and management of an eating disorder. For some women, getting pregnant is exactly what they need to help them completely overcome their disorder. For others, though, pregnancy can cause a relapse. Bulimics are especially vulnerable to relapsing during the postpartum period. However, just because the eating disorder is being treated does not mean that all the associated risks in pregnancy will disappear.
A recent Danish study showed that the effects of an eating disorder can be present in the body years after receiving treatment. Investigator’s found that a woman’s chances of having a high-risk pregnancy are the same for those women treated right before conceiving as they are for those treated 8 years prior to getting pregnant.
If you have an eating disorder but would like to get pregnant, be sure to discuss the issue with your health care provider or fertility specialist. It is best to wait until you have the disorder under control before you get pregnant. During your pregnancy, follow all of the recommendations made by your health care provider and eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet. This will help ensure that you and your baby stay healthy.