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Being overweight or obese can affect a woman's fertility, as can being underweight —particularly if a woman is experiencing an eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
Eating disorders affect as many as 10 million women in the United States, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Often, these women are not aware of the long-term impact of the disorder on their fertility. In addition, for women with eating disorders, pregnancy can be a difficult time with a higher risk of pregnancy and birth complications, such as miscarriage and premature deliveries.
How Eating Disorders Impact Fertility
Eating disorders can cause disruption to a woman's menstrual cycle. Substantial weight loss can lead to hormonal changes that might prevent ovulation.
In a study published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 11,088 pregnant women completed questionnaires at 12 and 18 weeks pregnant. The British researchers then compared women with lifetime anorexia and bulimia to the group as a whole to assess the impact of eating disorders on attitudes about fertility and pregnancy and found that a higher proportion of women (39.5 percent) with a history of anorexia and bulimia took longer than six months to conceive compared to the general population (25 percent). In addition, women with anorexia and bulimia were more than twice as likely (6.2 percent) than the general population (2.7 percent) to have received fertility treatment or help to conceive.
In the same study, the researchers found that women with anorexia were more likely to report that their current pregnancy was unplanned (41.5 percent) compared with 28.6 percent of women in the general population.
"This research highlights that there are risks to fertility associated with eating disorders,” says Abigail Easter, the lead author of the study from the Instiute of Psychiatry at King’s College London. “However, the high rates of unplanned pregnancies in women with a history of anorexia suggest that women may be underestimating their chances of conceiving."
Seek Treatment for Eating Disorders Before Getting Pregnant
It is very important for women with eating disorders to seek treatment for the disorder before trying to get pregnant. They need to make sure they are able to adequately care and feed their bodies during pregnancy.
"To ensure the best care and advice can be provided for women with eating disorders who want to conceive, it's really important that they discuss their eating habits and behaviors with their health care provider before planning a pregnancy,” Easter says. “For health care providers, it's also important to know that women with a history of eating disorders will continue to require additional care and support during and after their pregnancy."