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Anorexia and periods

Have you ever wondered whether body weight impacts the menstrual cycle? 

Well, body weight has a very direct relationship with your periods. One of the leading eating disorders that affects body weight is anorexia nervosa - which has a direct impact on the menstrual cycle. 

So in this blog, we’re going to learn about the causes of anorexia, what symptoms to look out for, how this eating disorder can alter the menstrual cycle, and its treatment. 

understanding anorexia 

what is anorexia?

Fully known as ‘anorexia nervosa’, anorexia is an eating disorder which has physical, psychological and behavioural impact on a persons life. 

While anorexia is more commonly associated with people with low weight, it can affect individuals of all shapes and sizes. 

Anorexia is characterised by:

1. Restricting from food intake

This includes restricting the body from basic food that gives the nutrients required to stay healthy. 

2. Intense fear of gaining weight

This fear of becoming overweight or gaining even a kilo is an overpowering thought for a person with anorexia.  

3. Distorted view of body image 

This means that people with anorexia may think they look and weigh more than they actually do, leading them to think that eating food is unhealthier than it actually is. 

who can get anorexia? 

While anyone can get anorexia, it is most common amongst teen girls between the age of 13 to 19. 

Girls aged 16-17 are at highest risk of developing anorexia. 

what can cause anorexia?

Over 50% cases of anorexia are known to have genetic factors involved. 

However, other than genetics there is no clear biological cause for anorexia. Rather, its cause is largely due to exposure to unhealthy body image and beauty standard content from a young age. 

Over the last decade there has been a significant increase in marketing campaigns about weight loss products and supplements. In fact studies show an increase in anorexia in children related to social media exposure and dieting culture influence.

what are the symptoms of anorexia? 

The symptoms of anorexia can be understood through three categories - physical, behavioural and psychological. Depending on how severe the anorexia is, a person may have one or more of the following symptoms:  

Physical 

  • Excessive calorie counting leading to negative body image thoughts 
  • Skipping meals 
  • Obsessive thoughts about meal-related activities 
  • Fatigue 
  • Dizziness 
  • Rapid weight loss 
  • Malnutrition 

Behavioural

  • Severe restriction of food through extreme dieting 
  • Over exercising 
  • Secrecy around food

Psychological 

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low self esteem
  • Having a distorted body image

is anorexia life-threatening? 

Anorexia is known to be a life-threatening condition - with the highest mortality rate compared to any other mental health condition. 

This is because individuals with anorexia might suffer from severe depression, leading to death by suicide. 

In fact, studies show that 1 in 5 (20%) people with anorexia attempt to take their life. And up to 60% of individuals with an eating disorder engage with suicidal thoughts or behaviours. 

While anorexia can be a life-threatening condition, the good news is that it can be treated - which we will discuss later in this blog. 

Lets first move onto understanding how anorexia affects the menstrual cycle and periods. 

anorexia and menstrual health  

how does anorexia affect the menstrual cycle?

Anorexia and reproductive health are directly related as anorexia can cause amenorrhea - which is the absence of periods during the reproductive years. 

Amenorrhea can be quantified by three or more missed periods in a row and needs to be diagnosed by a medical practitioner. 

This happens because anorexia can cause hormonal imbalances, which disrupts the menstrual cycle and causes menstrual irregularities

When the body is deprived of food, it will not have enough energy to ensure that the body’s systems work properly. In this case, it starts functioning in ‘survival mode’ and only provides the little energy it has to the vital organs. 

As a result, the hypothalamus, which is the control centre of the brain that regulates hormonal functions, can get suppressed. So the body will lack the hormones it needs to ensure a consistent menstrual cycle. 

how does anorexia affect periods? 

The menstrual changes in anorexic individuals can cause irregular periods or periods to get skipped 

A study found that 8-10% of women with anorexia have noticed changes in their menstruation frequency - experiencing delayed, irregular or shortened periods. 

Someone with anorexia might also notice darker and spotty menstrual flow due to anorexia

For some women dealing with anorexia, they may lose their period long before they start experiencing weight loss from insufficient food intake. 

can anorexia cause fertility issues? 

You may be wondering whether anorexia and fertility issues are linked? Well, yes they are.  

If the body doesn't get the nutrients it needs, the eggs become weaker than needed,  making it much more difficult to conceive. 

Also, in order for a person to conceive the body needs to have a consistent menstrual cycle to ensure they are ovulating. 

So if the menstrual cycle is compromised due to anorexia, this can cause infertility over a long period of time. 

diagnosis and treatment

how is anorexia diagnosed? 

Along with physical symptoms, anorexia also has physiological and behavioural symptoms. So you can't tell if a person has anorexia just based on their appearance.

Anorexia needs to be diagnosed by a healthcare professional. 

This will include a blood test to rule out any other medical conditions causing weight loss, a Body Mass Index Reading (BMI) and a psychologist consultation to understand physiological and behavioural symptoms in some cases. 

In order to be diagnosed with anorexia, body weight needs to be at least 15% lower than the expected body weight. 

what is the treatment for anorexia? 

Much like other mental health conditions, there is no one-stop solution for anorexia. 

Treating anorexia usually involves a team of healthcare professionals, including a doctor, nutritionist and counsellor or psychologist. 

The most important thing to treat anorexia is to have ongoing, consistent therapy and nutrition education - slowly helping a person unlearn old patterns and relearn new, healthier patterns. 

how can you improve period symptoms with anorexia? 

The treatment for anorexia can improve the menstrual cycle. To bring back periods, the body needs enough energy to restore the hormonal imbalance. 

So the best way to work towards menstrual cycle normalisation as someone that deals with anorexia is by consistently consuming a healthy diet as advised by a healthcare professional. 

If someone is going through anorexia recovery, it is likely that menstruation patterns will start returning to normal within a few months. 

disclaimer 

Asan has strict sourcing guidelines and draws information from healthcare institutions and peer-reviewed studies.

This blog is written for informative purposes only. We do not offer medical advice or diagnosis. If you or someone you know is suffering from symptoms of anorexia, please consult a healthcare professional to seek advice. 


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