Eating Disorders and Fertility

It's More Common Than You'd Think

Approximately seven million American women and more than one million women in the UK are affected with eating disorders. The average age of these women is 14 through 25, which means that most of them are in the peak time of their childbearing years when they develop this behavior. The truly sad part of this is that eating disorders profoundly affect female fertility, and, if the woman is able to conceive, then the life of her unborn baby is at serious risk.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is probably the best known of the eating disorders and the one we associate with the most serious outcomes. Most people believe it is a choice, but anorexia is really a mental illness. Its primary characteristic is a distorted view of body image and obsessive dieting or starvation to control weight gain. Along with the severe dieting comes an obsession with exercise in a bid to control weight even further. The mental illness is displayed in the belief that even though the woman is dangerously thin, she will continue to see herself as fat and will continue to lose whatever weight is left. The constant striving toward perfection along with the obsessive compulsive behaviors are signals of this dangerous illness.

Bulimia Nervosa

Even more common than anorexia is bulimia nervosa which involves binge eating and then vomiting or using laxatives to rid the body of excess calories. Anorexia is an obvious problem, but bulimia is a disorder that can be kept hidden because the woman can maintain a healthy body weight so it doesn't look like anything is wrong. Since the signs are not so visible, bulimia remains a hidden illness. However, it is also a very dangerous illness and one that needs to be addressed.

A Painful Existence

The potential side effects of eating disorders are serious and they include fatigue, constipation, abdominal pain, anxiety, depression, hair loss, tooth decay and damage to the heart, liver and kidneys. On top of all of this, eating disorders have a serious negative effect on a woman's fertility and the entire reproductive process. Anorexics tend to suffer with amenorrhea, the cessation of menses, which comes with dramatic weight loss and low body fat. This factor alone makes it virtually impossible for them to conceive. Amenorrhea is the result of reduced calorie intake, excessive exercise or psychological stress. About 50% of bulimics suffer with amenorrhea as well. Anorexics who have not had a period for years probably will go the rest of their lives without one due to the permanent damage done to their internal organs.

Contributing Factors to Fertility Issues

Other factors that contribute to fertility issues include a poor diet, stress, and depression. The results of these factors are low libido, reduced egg quality, poor uterine environment and ovarian failure. Any one of these factors affects reproduction, from fertilization of the egg through carrying a pregnancy to term.

Serious Complications Can Arise

Should an anorexic conceive, which is rare, the risks to the pregnancy are very high. Complications such as delayed fetal growth, placental separation, miscarriage, stillbirth or fetal death, gestational diabetes, jaundice, respiratory problems, preeclampsia, premature labor, low birth weight, low amniotic fluid and birth defects - most notably blindness and mental retardation - are common with pregnancies to women with eating disorders. Additionally, women with bulimia who use laxatives and diuretics are putting their baby and themselves at risk for malnutrition.

If the woman is able to carry her baby to term, there is a real likelihood of problems with breastfeeding and serious postpartum depression.

There Is Hope

There is, in all of this darkness, a bright side. Statistics show that 75 to 80 percent of women who undergo treatment for eating disorders and learn the ways to manage the issues go on to conceive. Sometimes a pregnancy is exactly the catalyst to help a woman break free from this disturbing and destructive illness. However, pregnancy risks don't just disappear when an eating disorder has been treated.