Statistics show between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, and that almost three-quarters of this population includes females. Disordered eating behaviours can have adverse effects on the body due to malnutrition and dehydration. And considering how the age of onset for conditions like anorexia and bulimia nervosa is between 16 and 19 years old, it makes young people, particularly women, highly susceptible to fertility issues.
These days, growing awareness surrounding eating disorders has led to more people approaching treatment services like bulimia nervosa therapy. Even so, it’s crucial to have a targeted discussion on the lasting effects of disordered eating patterns on their internal systems. Here’s how bulimia and anorexia can affect fertility.
Fluctuating Hormone Levels
Unhealthy eating behaviours can cause shifts in the levels of reproductive hormones that help ensure regular menstrual cycles in women, sperm production in men, and a healthy sex drive. Sudden increases and decreases in weight can cause changing amounts of fat tissue in the body. This leads to an imbalance in hormone levels because fat reserves are responsible for the release of hormones.
In women, restricted eating patterns can contribute to an oestrogen deficiency, which affects sex drive and other reproductive functions. More importantly, it means infrequent ovulation as oestrogen is needed to trigger the ovaries and help them release an egg. In a normal menstrual cycle, the ovaries release one egg per cycle, and this regular ovulation is pivotal for conceiving naturally. In cases of prolonged calorie reduction, the ovaries and uterus risk returning to their prepubertal size.
In males, excessive weight loss can mean rapid changes in the body’s physiology, which includes low testosterone levels. This can reduce sex drive, as well as erectile function.
Effects of Eating Disorders on Pregnancy
While eating disorders don’t completely inhibit a woman’s ability to get pregnant, it does affect the kind of pregnancy they have. During pregnancy, disordered eating not only impacts the mother’s health but foetal development as well. For this reason, it’s important to understand how pregnancy and eating disorders interact.
One of the biggest concerns is that women fail to gain enough weight during pregnancy. They may show fear of gaining weight by restricting the amount of food they eat. Oftentimes, they may require supplements due to poor nutrition. If you are pregnant and have an eating disorder of any type, it is worth seeking out an eating disorder therapist to help you along with your pregnancy.
Additionally, women suffering from eating disorders have distorted perceptions of their own bodies. During pregnancy, the body experiences various changes, which can be difficult for any woman to get used to. Hence, changes in body shape can be considerably stressful for women with eating disorders.
Malnutrition and dehydration, which are characteristic features of eating disorders, have negative effects on the baby’s development. Women with anorexia nervosa face a higher risk of miscarriage, delivering babies with low birth weight, premature delivery, and slow foetal growth. They may also face a higher likelihood of birth complications around the time of their delivery, such as the need for a C-section.
Weight Changes and Sperm Quality
Despite men accounting for a quarter of eating disorder cases in the UK, it’s common for people to associate conditions like anorexia or bulimia with women. Consequently, men’s struggles with eating disorders fail to get proper representation. It can prompt many men to continue suffering in silence until their unhealthy eating patterns cause irreversible damage.
Fluctuating weight can negatively affect men’s sperm count, as well as sperm quality. Inadequate nutrition can contribute to poor sperm motility, which is a sperm cell’s ability to move efficiently. Lower sperm quality can reduce the chances of a successful pregnancy, which can be devastating for a couple trying to have a baby.
Effect of Excessive Exercise on Fertility
Aside from restrictive eating, compulsive and excessive exercising can also end up affecting reproductive functions in both men and women. In men, excessive exercise can raise the temperature of the testes, which reduces sperm count. Sperm production takes place within a narrow temperature range, which is below normal body temperature.
In females, excessive exercise can affect the hormonal balance, which disrupts the menstrual cycle. Consequently, they may miss their menstrual cycle, or bleed when they’re not on their period. This can get even worse when women aren’t eating enough, such as in anorexia nervosa, and it has a major impact on their ability to get pregnant.
The Road to Recovery
While eating disorders can have adverse effects on reproductive functions in both men and women, studies show that women who received appropriate care were able to have healthy pregnancies. That being said, while some women show a decrease in disordered eating behaviours during pregnancy, there was also a risk of relapsing after they had their babies.
That’s why seeing a certified therapist for eating disorder counselling is important for your treatment journey. Through personalised treatment plans, they help redefine your relationship with food, body image, and exercise.