What to Consider When Trying to Conceive After Recovering From an Eating Disorder
For many women who have struggled with an eating disorder, there can be an unspoken fear of infertility or difficulty conceiving a baby. As a survivor of anorexia myself, infertility was a real fear I faced after years of starving my body and over-exercising.
Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder (BED), involve behaviors that can disrupt normal reproduction. While having the ability to conceive is dependent on many factors, malnutrition, too much exercise and chronic stress can be major contributors to infertility. Reproductive hormones in the body are directly impacted by these factors, including environmental stressors, lack of sleep, emotional dysregulation and inadequate nutrition. It’s important to understand that these things are highly individual. What might be stressful for me may not be a stressor for you and vice versa. When looking at reproductive health in eating disorder recovery, it is important to focus on what your own unique needs are, as these are different for every woman.
Healing from an eating disorder is often a slow but steady process, one that usually progresses gradually over time. Many women who struggle with an eating disorder may experience irregular periods or a complete loss of menstruation due to erratic behaviors, like restricting caloric intake, limiting major macronutrients (like fat, protein or carbohydrates), over-exercising pr binging/purging.
Thankfully, recovery is real and healing is possible, even in the most severe situations. A woman’s menstrual cycle can give clues about her overall health, and it is important to be aware of some indicators that may reveal how the reproductive system may have been compromised by an eating disorder. If a woman cannot physically sustain a potential pregnancy each month, this will often be reflected in her menstrual health. Some of the more common complications with reproductive health that may result from an eating disorder include:
- Low egg count
- Amenorrhea, or the abnormal absence of a normal menstrual cycle
- Decreased sex drive
- An inability to ovulate
- Oligomenorrhea, or infrequent menstrual periods
While these conditions can increase the likelihood of infertility, there is hope for healing; with persistence in recovery, many women are able to heal their bodies, establish regular periods and conceive naturally. Critical components of eating disorder recovery are also necessary for a woman preparing her body for pregnancy, including reestablishing a healthy relationship with food and exercise, developing positive coping skills and effective stress management techniques. By normalizing eating behaviors, including a wide variety of nourishing foods and decreasing overall stressors on the body, a woman in recovery can help normalize irregularities with her menstrual health and improve her chances of getting pregnant naturally. There are also other factors to consider when trying to conceive after recovering from an eating disorder:
1. Quality of Diet
This is not so much hyper-focusing on specific foods to eat or not eat to support fertility, but rather looking at how and what you eat as a whole. It is important that your diet includes a variety of foods that are both nourishing and enjoyable, you receive sufficient calories, and you include a balance of essential nutrients.
While you may be eating a variety of foods and getting adequate calories, over-exercising can interfere with reproductive health and may increase your risk of infertility. If your exercise regime is too strenuous on your body, this can jeopardize your body’s normal menstrual cycle. Over-exercising and under-eating can cause your body to shut down organ systems that are not essential for survival, including your reproductive system.
3. Healthy Body Weight
Establishing a weight that is healthy for you is another critical component to fertility and improving your chances of conceiving naturally. How do you know you are at a weight that is appropriate for your body type and able to support a potential pregnancy? A healthy weight encompasses more than being at a specific number. If you are able to eat intuitively, engage in mindful exercise, enjoy a variety of foods without feeling guilty and are not actively engaging in eating disorder behaviors, you have likely reached a weight range that is right for you. Again, this is highly individual for every woman, but your menstrual cycle can give you clues as to whether or not you are in a healthy weight range for your body. If you are continuing to have irregular or absent periods, this may be an indicator that your body is not in an appropriate weight range.
4. Stress Management
Chronic states of stress, whether from emotional or environmental reasons, exposes the body to hormones that interfere with normal menstruation and ovulation. This might be from inadequate nutrition, over-exercising, lack of sleep, difficult relationships or an overwhelming job. While we cannot always avoid stressors in our lives, we can implement effective techniques for managing stress and improving self-care.
There are many factors that influence a woman’s ability to conceive, and focusing on eating disorder recovery can be instrumental in improving your chances of getting pregnant naturally. If you have been facing infertility or have been met with challenges in conceiving, know that there is absolutely hope for your healing and for the future of the family you desire. You are not alone in this journey. Reach out for professional help if needed to guide you through any obstacles you might be facing.
After being faced with the possibility of never having children due to complications from my eating disorder, I am now a proud mama of five. The God-given gifts of my children are also a reflection of the power of healing and recovering from an eating disorder. Our bodies are incredibly resilient, and when given the opportunity to heal with care and compassion, we can recover: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. No matter how desperate a situation may seem, there is always hope.
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