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Women with Eating Disorders More Likely to Have Reproductive Problems

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

According to a Finnish study, women with eating disorders have a greater risk of reproductive problems. Millions of women in the United States alone suffer from eating disorders, and some estimates place the number of women who will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives as high as 10% of the worldwide population. Although eating disorders do occur at most ages and in both genders, they are most commonly diagnosed in women of childbearing age.

The University of Helsinki and the National institute for Health and Welfare carried out the study by examining 15 years of data from over 11,000 women. The startling findings included the fact that women with anorexia were only half as likely as their peers to have children. The study also revealed that women with binge-eating disorder are three times as likely as their peers to have miscarriages.

In addition, bulimics have twice as many abortions as their peers. The exact cause for this was not clear, but it could be that because eating disorders can cause irregular periods; these women may also be inconsistent with contraception use. It’s possible that it could also have something to do with bulimics’ tendency to exhibit impulsive behavior.

Worse still, women with eating disorders continue to have fertility issues even after they appear to have recovered. Women who have ever had an eating disorder, even if they are now recovered, still find it harder to conceive as well as to carry a pregnancy to term.

The study certainly highlights the need for more research on this apparent link, because it’s possible that early recognition and effective treatment for eating disorders may help prevent fertility problems. Currently, only about 1 in 10 people with eating disorders receive treatment. Early intervention and long term treatment may help reduce the ultimate effects of the eating disorder, so increasing the number of those getting treatment is important.

Of course, fertility problems are only one reason why it’s crucial for women with eating disorders to seek treatment, and women should discuss treatment options with their doctors for the physical effects of the eating disorder as well as the psychological and psychosocial effects. Social well-being is just one area of mental health that can be dramatically impacted by an eating disorder. Eating disorders cause numerous physical health problems as well, including problems with heart health, osteoporosis, dehydration or electrolyte imbalances, and tooth decay, to name a few.

People suffering from eating disorders can call the National Eating Disorders Hotline at 1-800-931-2237 for information on treatment and referrals, or they can talk to their doctor about possible treatment options. If you suspect that someone you know has an eating disorder, talk to him or her about it. Eating disorders are serious illnesses that can be life-threatening, so don’t wait to get help.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

Is the Media Affecting Your Appetite?

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

When you hear someone mention eating disorders, you probably think of anorexia or bulimia right away. These are more commonly discussed in the media, but in reality, an eating disorder is any type of distorted relationship with food that negatively affects our behavior. Compulsive overeating is a type of eating disorder, even though it is essentially the opposite of anorexia. Many of us have a distorted relationship with food—I myself am guilty of such a relationship. However, I’m at one end of the spectrum where it doesn’t necessarily interfere with my life. Many women, especially in the Western world, suffer from eating disorders, and numerous studies show that it is directly a cause of skinny role models in the media. Before discussing that cause though, let’s first examine the different types of eating disorders people commonly develop.

Anorexia affects one in every 200 women in America. Studies show that the cause might be linked to traumatic situations. Peer pressure is a major factor, and some studies even show that genetic factors and posttraumatic stress might contribute to a person’s likelihood of developing anorexia. It is the refusal to maintain a healthy body weight and a fear of gaining weight. People with anorexia have an unrealistic body image.

Bulimia is characterized by recurrent binge eating following by compensatory behaviors. Diuretics, vomiting, and excessive exercise often follow binge eating. Binge eating is also a disorder of its own when it is not followed by compensatory behavior, which is considered compulsive overeating. Many studies suggest binge eating is triggered by stress.

So, why do people, especially women in the United States, feel that their bodies are not good enough? In addition to the stress and trauma often behind the disorders, studies suggest that the media might have a large role in the problem. Dr. Anne E. Becker, a professor of Global Health at Harvard Medical School, completed studies to determine the relationship between figures in the media and people with eating disorders. Not surprisingly, the impossibly skinny role models currently in the media heavily influence women and their self-image.

It’s hard to ignore the beautiful women on TV and in the magazines, but it is our duty as mothers and healthy citizens to do so as best we can. Try to maintain a healthy body weight with proper nutrition, and never let the airbrushed women in the media affect your view of yourself.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.


Is Your Brain Influencing Your Weight

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Losing weight when you are obese is a serious challenge, likewise gaining weight when you are anorexic.  This difficulty stems from the habits we create for ourselves and consequently, the conditioning our brains receive.  When you need to overcome an eating disorder, it’s not just a matter of willpower, but studies suggest it’s also a matter of remapping brain circuitry, and that’s no easy task.

As of 2008, one in every 200 US women suffered from Anorexia and more than two out of every three were overweight or obese.  That means millions of American women are struggling with their weight every day.  For this reason, scientists in the Developmental Brain Research Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine wanted to find out how eating behavior was related to dopamine pathways, similar to those found in drug addictions.  They compared the brain activity of 63 women who were either anorexic or obese to those of normal weight and found that “reward circuits in the brain are sensitized in anorexic women and desensitized in obese women.”  Basically, this means that anorexic women get much more pleasure and satisfaction out of a sweet treat than someone who is obese.  As with drug tolerances, it takes much more of those foods we love to satisfy the cravings of someone who is overweight.  Anorexic women on the other hand, might feel like they’ve had too much, a sugar overdose so to speak, after partaking in a single serving.  More research needs to be done to determine the precise role of the brain’s reward system when it comes to eating disorders, but so far, it seems that it definitely has some part in regulating food intake.

Although the involvement of your brain circuitry might make your battle with weight loss or weight gain more intimidating, all is not lost.  Recent brain research shows that with gradual habit changes and regular conditioning, we can change the neural pathways in our brains.  As with any addiction, kicking the habit isn’t easy, but once you train your brain, your new, healthier habits should help keep you on track.


– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.