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Direct Links Between Eating Disorders and Infertility

written by: Finn Orfano • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 7/31/2010

Women who suffer from an eating disorder can experience infertility issues as a result of damage to the body. Disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and compulsive eating may compromise the female reproductive system in ways that decrease the likelihood of fertility and conception.

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    The connection between eating disorder and infertility complications is one that some women with food-related issues aren't aware of until they experience problems when trying to conceive. Eating disorders, particularly those that persist for years, can impair a woman's hormonal levels and reproductive organs to the point where infertility issues develop. The following three eating disorders each involve specific factors that damage fertility.

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    Anorexia Nervosa and Infertility

    Anorexia nervosa is characterized by a severe reduction in calorie intake over a prolonged period of time. This disorder, through which bodily organs are malnourished due to starvation, can seriously impact fertility in women. Anorexia nervosa often results in infertility-related complications such as amenorrhea (lack of a menstrual period). Women who have anorexia nervosa are often significantly underweight and lack the amount of body fat necessary for normal functioning of reproductive hormones. As a result, these women do not ovulate or menstruate and are therefore infertile. Anorexia nervosa can impact fertility to the degree that even after a woman gains some weight and resumes menstruating, her reproductive cycles may take several years to regulate. (1)

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    Bulimia Nervosa and Infertility

    Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that involves cycles of binge eating and purging. Long-term bulimic behaviors on the part of women may cause infertility. As is the case with women who suffer from anorexia, those who have bulimic tendencies are not properly nourished and often do not produce estrogen or other reproductive hormones at the levels needed to sustain fertility. Though women with bulimia may not be drastically underweight, their body fat levels may still be low enough to disrupt the function of hormones that regulate menstrual cycles. In these situations, women experience infertility due to infrequent or anovulatory cycles. (2)

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    Compulsive Eating Disorder and Infertility

    Compulsive eating disorder, which involves periods of binge eating without purging, often leads to obesity in women. Obesity is a factor that may affect a woman's ability to conceive a child. Several infertility issues relate to obesity, including:

    --an excess of fat cells in the body. Because fat cells produce slight amounts of estrogen, the presence of excess body fat can "throw off" the normal functioning of reproductive hormones (the brain detects estrogen production and thinks that ovulation is taking place when it actually is not).

    --a higher risk of developing Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). PCOS, often linked to women with obesity issues, causes cysts to form from ovarian follicles that fail to develop into eggs. PCOS impairs ovulation and increases the risk of infertility in obese women. (3)

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    A woman who experiences eating disorder and infertility complications should be evaluated and treated by qualified professionals in each specialization. Women who wish to conceive while an eating disorder is still ongoing should seek help to achieve mental and bodily health before undergoing infertility testing and treatment.

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    References

    1) ConceiveOnline.com (Anorexia Nervosa)--http://generalhealthtopics.com/eating-disorders-and-infertility-969.html

    2) ConceiveOnline.com (Bulimia Nervosa)--http://www.conceiveonline.com/diagnosis/bulimia/

    3) ConceiveOnline.com (Overweight)--http://www.conceiveonline.com/diagnosis/weight-overweight/