A B C - Anorexia, Bulimia and Conception

April 18, 2011

Eating Disorders and Pregnancy

There was a time when eating disorders were primarily associated with performers such as ballet dancers, stage performers, models or athletes. Today about seven million American women are plagued with eating disorders. They usually develop the disorders between the ages of 14 and 25, which also happens to be the early childbearing years.

Eating disorders affect every aspect of a woman's life. Her body is put into severe stress, organs can fail, the immune system falters, and fertility is profoundly affected. If a woman with an eating disorder is able to conceive a pregnancy she endangers the life of her unborn child. If she is able to carry the baby to term, the likelihood of breastfeeding problems and serious post-partum depression are very real.

The Mental Illness of Eating Disorders

Anorexia nervosa, perhaps the best known of the eating disorders also carries the most serious outcomes. Awareness of this desperate illness came to the surface several years ago with the death of Karen Carpenter, the young singer who fell prey to anorexia nervosa and was not able to recover. Since then, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa have been topics of discussion and treatment.

The perception that eating disorders are a choice made by a woman is incorrect. In fact, eating disorders are mental illnesses. The distorted view of body image that "requires" obsessive dieting or starvation to control weight is the primary characteristic of eating disorders. Along with dieting there is usually obsession with exercise to make sure weight is controlled. The mental illness appears in the belief of the woman that even though she is dangerously thin she still is overweight. When she looks in the mirror, she does not see a thin person; she only sees where she needs to lose more weight. The belief that thinner is prettier and a bid to be perfect drive her to destruction.

Bulimia Nervosa - The Hidden Illness

Bulimia nervosa is even more common than anorexia, but since it can be kept secret it is more of a hidden illness. Bulimia involves binge eating and then vomiting or using laxatives to purge the body of calories. Anorexia is obvious but bulimia allows a woman to maintain an outward appearance of health since body weight remains somewhat stable so it doesn't look like anything is wrong. However, bulimia is dangerous and causes a number of problems internally for a woman who engages in the behavior. The perception is the same as anorexia, seeing only fat and trying to control it with disordered eating.

The Deadly Effects of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders carry a number of potential side effects that are serious and can become life threatening. Fatigue, muscle pain and cramping, constipation and abdominal pain are some of the external effects of eating disorders. Anxiety, depression and damage to the heart, lungs and kidneys as well as negative repercussions to the reproductive process and fertility accompany eating disorders as well. An anorexic woman will suffer with amenorrhea, which is the loss of menstruation that happens when there is a serious loss of body weight and body fat is extremely low. Conception won't happen without menses. Reduced caloric intake, mental or psychological stress and abusive exercise cause amenorrhea, something about 50% of bulimics suffer with as well. An anorexic who has not had a menstrual period for years will likely live out her life without one due to the damage caused to her reproductive organs through the abusive behavior.

Pregnancy Problems

The complications and risks that attend a pregnancy, if an anorexic actually conceives, are extremely high. There are many issues and problems that occur, from delayed fetal growth to blindness, birth defects and death of the baby. A woman with bulimia who controls her body weight with laxatives and diuretics puts both herself and her unborn baby at risk for malnutrition.

There is some good news in all of this though and that is that 75 to 80 percent of women who are successfully treated for eating disorders and learn healthy ways to manage their weight are able to conceive. However, pregnancy risks are still a concern and careful monitoring of the pregnancy is necessary.

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