Eating disorders manifest themselves in different ways yet consistently lead to damage in many areas of the body. This harm includes impacting the reproductive system, and all genders living with an eating disorder are at risk for infertility, which may be long-term.
What are the Most Common Eating Disorders Associated with Infertility?
Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia can lead to infertility in men and women. Still, a study in the UK found that women who have lived with an eating disorder have increased fertility challenges (1).
How Does an Eating Disorder Affect a Person’s Fertility Levels?
Consuming fewer calories means many of the body’s regular functions will begin to change or even stop altogether.
In women, malnutrition and irregular menstrual cycles caused by eating disorders can affect fertility. This effect is due to hormone disruption via the menstruation and ovulation cycles. Many women living with an eating disorder will experience a stop in menses or period irregularity, making it difficult to conceive (2). Without ovulation, it is impossible to become pregnant.
In men, malnutrition can decrease testosterone levels, sperm count, and sperm motility, affecting fertility.
Additionally, severe and prolonged restrictive caloric intake, common in eating disorders, can cause damage to the reproductive system, making it difficult for a person to conceive.
Are There Any Treatments Available for Eating Disorders to Help with Infertility Issues?
There are treatments that people living with infertility can use. The first step will be to complete some diagnostic tests to determine the reason for the fertility concerns.
Once this testing is complete, the treating provider may prescribe some medications to assist with ovulation. Additional treatments that one might consider are intrauterine insemination, in which sperm is inserted directly into the uterus, or in vitro fertilization (IVF), in which the doctor inserts fertilized eggs into the uterus (3).
While no specific treatments are available for those living with eating disorders and experiencing infertility, addressing the eating disorder can help.
Some things that those wishing to conceive can do include the following:
- Address the underlying eating disorder, which includes seeking support and assistance to deal with the issues triggering the eating disorder. Seeking help from a healthcare provider is a crucial first step.
- Sharing your eating disorder history with your fertility treatment team and/or gynecologist is essential. While you may feel embarrassed at sharing, all members of your treatment team must know this critical information.
- Work with a nutritionist who will help you maintain a positive relationship with nutritional foods to support conception and carrying a baby (4).
It is essential to rebuild your relationship with food if you are experiencing fertility issues and considering treatment options (3).
What are the Long-term Effects of an Eating Disorder on Fertility?
It is important to note that fertility may not return to normal even after recovery from an eating disorder, so seeking treatment as soon as possible is crucial for increasing the chances of future fertility. Still, we cannot presume that an eating disorder survivor will suffer from lifelong fertility issues. Research has shown that restoring body weight is significant in addressing long-term fertility issues (3).
However, it is clear that eating disorders can affect fertility if an individual is still suffering from their effects or has not engaged in treatment.
There are many resources available to assist individuals in accessing support systems. The first step in the fertility journey is to reach out for help and professional guidance (3).
Fertility issues can be devastating, but it is crucial to recognize that living with an eating disorder does not automatically mean one is infertile or that the person will never conceive. Many new treatments can assist those living with eating disorders who are trying to become pregnant. The critical first step, however, is to engage in support for the eating disorder. At Selah House, we can help. Take the first step by calling us at 866-423-8081 today or connect with us through our contact form.
- Boyes, S. (2011, August 5). Eating disorders affect fertility, pregnancy: Anorexia, bulimia linked to more infertility, unplanned pregnancies. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/eating-disorders/news/20110805/eating-disorders-affect-fertility-pregnancy
- Chaer, R., Nakouzi, N., Itani, L., Tannir, H., Kreidieh, D., El Masri, D., & El Ghoch, M. (2020). Fertility and reproduction after recovery from anorexia nervosa: A systematic review and meta-analysis of long-term follow-up studies. Diseases, 8(4):46. doi: 10.3390/diseases8040046.
- Texas Fertility Center. (n.d.). Eating disorders and infertility. https://txfertility.com/female-infertility/eating-disorders-and-infertility/
- The Fertility & Gynaecology Academy. (n.d.). Anorexia and bulimia: how eating disorders affect fertility. https://www.fertility-academy.co.uk/blog/anorexia-bulimia-how-eating-disorders-affect-fertility/
- Selah House. (n.d.). Eating disorder treatment center: Offering compassionate eating disorder treatment in Indiana. www.selahhouse.com
Kim English is a Nursing Professor and has been teaching nurses at the undergraduate and postgraduate level since 2002. Kim has supported a family member through the lived experience of eating disorders and works to advocate for support in rural areas.