Eating Disorders and Infertility: Finding Hope and Healing

Woman struggling with Infertility

Contributor: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, Director of Content and Social Media at Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope

For the majority of women, pregnancy is a joyous and momentous time, one that is filled with planning, anticipation, and wonderment of what is to come.

However, for the countless women who struggle with infertility, pregnancy can be a stark reminder of what has not yet occurred, the daily challenge of facing an unknown emptiness.

Every baby announcement or baby shower should feel like a cause for celebration and excitement, but for a woman facing infertility, it can be a painful experience to watch loved ones conceive effortlessly.

Understanding Infertility and Eating Disorders

Because of the shame and stigma that is often associated with infertility, many individuals who are struggling with reproductive issues may not feel able to speak openly about the challenges they are facing. Despite how infrequently infertility may be discussed, it is actually a much more common issue.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infertility is defined as being unable to conceive after one year of unprotected sex [1]. Infertility can also involve recurrent pregnancy loss, such as two or more spontaneous miscarriages.

It is estimated that approximately 6% of married women between the ages of 15-44 in the United States struggle with infertility, while about 12% of women between the ages of 15-44 years old have difficulty getting pregnant and/or carrying a pregnancy to term [1].

However, among women with a history of eating disorders, infertility and reproductive issues are much more prevalent. While about 12% of the general population will see a specialized physician for infertility issues, over 20% of individuals with eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa, will seek out fertility treatments [2].

There are many plausible reasons as to why women with eating disorders experience problematic reproductive issues, including the absence of menstruation caused by restrictive eating, psychological stress, malnutrition, hormonal imbalances, and more. Because eating disorders are chronic illnesses by nature, it can take a significant amount of time for a woman to completely heal and recover from the many physical, emotional, and psychological side effects resulting from an eating disorder.

Treatment Options

More often than not, eating disorders often go under the radar in the face of infertility, typically taking the backburner while help and treatment is sought for reproductive issues.

Woman in the rainMany women struggling with conceiving will present at fertility clinics with an undiagnosed eating disorder, which makes it difficult to address the root of the problem.

Research surveys have discovered that approximately 1 in 5 patients seen at infertility clinics also had an eating disorder [3].

The experience of infertility can be extremely distressing and isolating, and many women are eager to find some sort of treatment or solution to address this issue and common side effect of an eating disorder.  As troubling as infertility may be, an existing eating disorder must be addressed in order to effectively treat the root of the problem.

Rather than seeking out fertility treatments, eating disorder treatment should be sought and prioritized to address the problematic behaviors that may be contributing to the existence of infertility.

Up to 80% of women who are successfully treated for an existing eating disorder are able to go on to conceive, which attests to the power of recovery and healing.

Finding Hope and Healing

If you have been struggling with infertility as a result of a battle with an eating disorder, be encouraged in knowing that you are not alone. The disappointment that is felt after every pregnancy test that reads “negative” may feel like a heart-breaking loss, but there is hope for the future and for your own recovery and healing.

hand holding dandelionSeeking out comprehensive care for eating disorder treatment is an essential component for giving your body the opportunity to conceive naturally. Taking the time to adequately address concerns involved with an eating disorder are also crucial for preparing for a healthy pregnancy for both mother and baby.

Be patient with yourself and lean on the support of your health care specialists and professionals as well as those who love and care for you. Experiencing difficulties conceiving or carrying a pregnancy to term does not equate to something being “wrong” with you, and it is important to learn to let go of the guilt that might be weighing you down.

Make self-care a priority during this difficult time and work with your professional treatment team to ensure that all necessary steps are taken to address eating disorder behaviors for giving your body the best possible opportunity for conception. It is also important to grieve your losses while learning to build a hope for your future.

If you are in need of support during this difficult time, Eating Disorder Hope is here to help you with resources for connecting you to the necessary treatment you may need to begin your recovery journey. Consider reviewing the EDH Directory of Treatment Centers and Specialized Treatment Providers to begin your pathway towards healing from an eating disorder and infertility today.

Community Discussion – Share Your Thoughts Here!

What has been your experience with infertility and eating disorders? What encouragement might you share with others going through a similar situation?


Crystal Headshot 2About the Author: Crystal is a Masters-level Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a specialty focus in eating disorders, maternal/child health and wellness, and intuitive eating. Combining clinical experience with a love of social media and writing, Crystal serves as the Special Projects Coordinator for Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope, where her passion to help others find recovery and healing is integrated into each part of her work.

As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Crystal has dedicated her career to helping others establish a healthy relationship with food and body through her work with EDH/AH and nutrition private practice.


References:

[1]:  Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “What is Infertility?” http://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/infertility/ Accessed 21 August 2016
[2]:  Easter A et al. Fertility and prenatal attitudes towards pregnancy in women with eating disorders: Results from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. BJOG 2011
[3]:  “Eating Disorders and Fertility”, http://www.fertilityfactor.com/infertility_female_infertility_eating_disorders.html Accessed 21 August 2016


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 24, 2016
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com