Eating disorders disproportionately affect young women who are of child-bearing age. One of anorexia's most obvious symptoms is the absence and irregularity of menstrual periods. Women with bulimia also present similar symptoms, facts that indicate the reproductive system is deeply affected by eating disorders.

In a study of 14,600 women, which included over 500 women who suffered from eating disorders, 20 percent of the women with eating disorders had spoken with a physician about infertility. Only 12 percent of the general population in this study had sought fertility treatment or medical help with perceived fertility problems. The effects of eating disorders on both fertility and pregnancy are important for women and their families to understand.

Weight And Fertility

One of the reasons women with eating disorders experience irregular menstrual cycles, is the body's requirement for a minimum height to weight ratio to maintain menses. An article entitled “Reproductive failure in women who practice weight control" reported that in addition to women with diagnosable eating disorders, women who may not have a specific disorder, but still restrict calories or binge and purge, were more likely to conceive spontaneously after they started eating regularly. The report also claimed that many women who experience infertility do not report their eating disorder to their physician, making it more difficult for specialists to determine the underlying cause of fertility.

A recent British study consisting of almost 12,000 women found that women with eating disorders were also more likely to take six months to conceive than those who did not suffer from eating disorders.

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While negative effects on fertility are widely published, unexpected pregnancies among women with eating disorders is not as widely investigated. The previously mentioned British study found that 41.5 percent of the anorexic women in the study had unplanned pregnancies, while only 28.6 percent of the total population experienced unplanned pregnancies. The irregularity of the menstrual cycle may be one reason women who suffer from eating disorders experience greater rates of unplanned pregnancies.

Eating Disorders Affect Pregnancy

If women who suffer from eating disorders do become pregnant, they and their fetus suffer from side effects that women with regular eating habits are less likely to experience. These side effects include:

  • Severe vomiting, also known as hyperemesis gravidarum
  • Less weight gain during pregnancy
  • Having babies with lower birth weights or who are premature
  • Being at a greater risk for a Caesarean birth, which makes it less likely subsequent births will be natural, and places both the mother and baby at a greater risk for infection
  • Higher levels of post-partum depression
  • Difficulty breastfeeding

These problems are particularly concerning for the infants. Babies with lower birth weights or who are born prematurely are more likely to have health problems and developmental disabilities. However, like the return of fertility when women were able to control their eating disorders or unhealthy eating habits, women who are stable and no longer practicing disordered eating were likely to have healthy pregnancies.

Eating disorders affect all aspects of a woman's life. Understanding how the disease can also affect a woman's reproductive health and offspring is important. Physicians recommend that women with eating disorders seek help before planning for a family.