It is well known that diet and nutrition may have a significant impact on an individual’s ability to conceive and reproductive systems. Nourishing the body properly is one of the most powerful health changes an individual can make in order to improve fertility, prevent miscarriage, and carry out a healthy pregnancy. Due to this correlation between nutritional intake and fertility, it is unsurprising that there is a link between eating disorders and reproductive health.
Regardless of the type of eating disorder, it is common for individuals who struggle with an eating disorder to experience one or a few of these symptoms related to reproductive health:
- Irregular periods
- Lack of periods (amenorrhea)
- Vaginal dryness
- Pelvic pain
- Painful intercourse
Eating Disorders and Periods
According to Chad Speth, a Primary Care Provider at Avalon Hills, “One of the most important and most common problems that occurs in the reproductive system of females with an eating disorder is amenorrhea.” Amenorrhea is the absence of menstruation. This can be due to pregnancy, breastfeeding, menopause, certain medications, stress, excessive exercise, hormone imbalance, and structural problems or abnormalities of reproductive organs. In the presence of an eating disorder, the most common cause of amenorrhea is the suppression of the hypothalamus in the brain. The hypothalamus is the portion of the brain responsible for releasing hormones, regulating temperature, maintaining daily physiological cycles, controlling appetite, managing sexual behavior, and regulating emotional responses. When the body is under stress caused by an eating disorder, the hypothalamus does not function correctly which then affects levels of estrogen. Estrogen is one of the main hormones that regulates the menstrual cycle. Without a functioning menstrual cycle, the body does not properly ovulate, which can cause infertility.
It is important to understand that although an eating disorder can make it extremely difficult to get pregnant, it can also lead to an increased risk of unintended pregnancy. This risk may be partially due to the fact that women with eating disorders who experience irregular periods or absence of periods mistakenly believe that they cannot become pregnant. These pregnancies are often high risk due to the malnutrition of the mother and can result in miscarriage.
Despite the alarming reproductive health risks that may come from an eating disorder, through establishing a healthy relationship with food and one’s self, the prognosis for pregnancy is much more promising.
Both eating disorders and infertility are conditions that carry an immense amount of shame and social stigma, which may serve as a barrier to reaching out for help. Being honest with your loved ones and your healthcare providers about your recovery journey is vital when considering parenthood in order to receive appropriate care before, during, and after pregnancy.