Study Links Eating Disorders to Childlessness

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Ten years into her recovery for bulimia and anorexia, former Miss Florida Allison Kreiger Walsh suffered a miscarriage and was shocked to learn it was likely related to her past eating disorders. "Losing a child was the worst thing that ever happened to me," she tells Yahoo Shine. Walsh says she was lucky to have a doctor who recognized the link. "He sat me down and told me I wasn't the first survivor to be in that situation." It's commonly thought that once a woman returns to a normal weight and her hormone levels are balanced, she regains her reproductive health, but new data shows that isn't necessarily the case. Walsh was lucky. Her doctor recognized the problem and she was able to conceive and carry a healthy pregnancy to term. Now she has a 20-month-old little girl. "I'm very fortunate," she says, "but many women aren't."

A new study shows that women with eating disorders are significantly less likely to have children than their peers. About seven million women in the United States suffer from eating disorders and some put that number higher. Worldwide, it's estimated that from 5-10% of girls and women in developed countries will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, and they are most commonly diagnosed in females of childbearing age.

The research, carried out by the University of Helsinki and the National Institute for Health and Welfare, was conducted using 15 years of data collected from more than 11,000 women. Some of the most alarming findings are that anorexics are half as likely to have children than their peers and that women suffering from binge-eating-disorder (BED) are three times more likely to have miscarriages.

Another distressing finding was that bulimics have twice as many abortions than the rest of the population. While the exact cause is not clear and more research needs to be done, the authors suggest that because eating disorders can lead to irregular periods or amenorrhea, women might not be as consistent with their contraception use. Kim McCallum, a psychiatrist who sits on the board of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and runs her own clinic in St. Louis, tells Yahoo Shine that another reason for this link might be because bulimics tend to exhibit more impulsive behavior.

McCallum says that what makes this study significant is that there has been little hard data on what she's also observed: that women with eating disorders have fertility issues even after they appear to have recovered from their disease. "What we see clinically is that for patients it's harder to conceive and carry a pregnancy to term."

The study calls for more attention to be paid to the link between eating disorders and fertility. "Early recognition, effective care and sufficiently long follow-up periods for eating disorders are crucial in the prevention of reproductive health problems," lead researcher Milla Linna from the University of Helsinki, Hjelt Institute said in a statement. Only about 1 in 10 people afflicted get treatment. "This study suggests negative reproductive outcomes are a significant concern for those with eating disorders," adds McCallum. "I agree that early intervention and complete treatment are key to reducing the risk of long term effects." 

McCallum also encourages women to seek treatment for both the physical and the psychosocial symptoms of eating disorders. "Disordered eating can also have a profound impact on attachment and social well being—and that can translate into intimacy and child rearing."

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorders Association hotline (1-800-931-2237) can provide information on getting treatment and referrals.