Sunday, September 16, 2007

Weight, eating disorders and fertility

Before learning about nutrition, health and physiology, I was under the false impression that fat is just an 'idle' tissue, without any really important function. How wrong I had been! Our fat tissue is, in fact, an endocrine center which secretes a variety of hormones and mediators.

We can't live a normal life without a good and healthy amount of fat, so no wonder it affects fertility too. Do you know how many women with eating disorders suffer from fertility problems, even long after they are healed? I remember a teacher of ours once told us about a patient she had, a woman who went through many years of anorexia nervosa and later bulimia. Eventually, all of these issues worked out, her weight was fine, her psychological problems were also solved, she got married… and it turned out she can't conceive. Tests have shown that her hormone levels are like those of a woman who is past her menopause. Years of being on the verge of starvation and tampering with her weight did not pass without leaving a trace! Most probably, she will never become a mother. Isn't this sad?

Several studies link obesity to fertility problems as well, especially for women with PCOS. Specifically abdominal obesity may be co-responsible for the development of hyperandrogenism (elevated levels of male hormones in women) and associated chronic anovulation. I haven't been able to find studies which explain in a clear way exactly how being very underweight or very overweight might have effect on our fertility, but it seems the connection is worth investigating.

Not that every woman who suffers from fertility problems has abnormal weight, and not all women with abnormal weight have fertility problems! However, it seems sometimes moderate weight reduction – or weight gain, in cases of anorexia nervosa for example - might help achieve a better hormonal balance and thus increase chances of pregnancy.

Isn't it fascinating how everything in our bodies is interlinked? It gets me thinking about how I should guard this body God has given me, so that I can be able to serve my family more efficiently, and to make it easier for me to bear children and give birth, if this is what God has in plan for me.


Mrs. Brigham said...

I am always fascinated to learn more and more about how everything in our body is linked. God's work in creating us is surely amazing.

Healthy weight and nutrition are not only important for achieving pregnancy, but also for breastfeeding as well. Women who are underweight may have difficulty making enough milk to nourish their babies. In fact, women who are just a tad bit "overweight" for their height by western standards have been found in several studies to be more fertile and have better breastfeeding outcomes. I think this just goes to show that all women have their own unique "healthy weight" and must not worry too much about how thin they look, but rather how healthy they are and how they feel day to day.

Have you read the study released last year that found a possible link between infertility and too little fat in the diet, particularly in dairy products? The information was quite interesting.

There are two books about fertility that I would highly recommend:

Fertility, Cycles, & Nutrition by Marilyn Shannon

The Garden of Fertility by Katie Singer

I do not agree with all of the information presented in either of these books, however, they both offer excellent information at making one's body a "safe place" for future pregnancy and lactation. They also offer information on charting one's cycle which can be of the utmost importance when facing a health problem like ovarian cysts, PCOS, irregular cycles, and the like. So often a doctor will just offer women the pill to "cure" their problems without ever looking at the underlying issue behind their problem. Charting your cycles can offer many clues and can help a midwife, naturopath, or open minded doctor help you when a problem does arise. Charting and the subsequent herbal therapy I was given were what helped clear up my ovarian cysts several years ago; something hormonal birth control could never do.

Now that I have written a novel, I am off ;P

Anna S said...

Mrs. Brigham, yes, I recall such a study, just can't remember right now where it was published!

It's interesting to notice that normal healthy diets are usually not low-fat at all. They are simply balanced.

Gothelittle Rose said...

"They found that women who ate two or more servings of low-fat dairy foods a day had an 85 percent higher risk of a certain type of infertility than women who ate less than one serving of low-fat dairy food a week.

Women who ate one serving of high-fat dairy food a day were 27 percent less likely to be infertile than women who avoided full-fat dairy foods."

Once my supply of 2% milk runs out, I think I'm going to buy whole for a while, since we're wanting to conceive. It won't hurt my four-year-old, who is not overweight anyways.

It's interesting stuff, really. Also shows why I have an inherent distrust of food substitutions that supposedly give you the same taste without the fat/sugar/etc. I'll take natural substitutes, like Nutella, but I avoid aspartame, sucralose, margarine, and especially olestra. I keep my weight under control through portion size and exercise.

Anna S said...

Now, I'm not sure about the cause-effect relationship here (less or more likely means there's a correlation, but not necessarily causation!); I think a woman who doesn't confine herself to low-fat dairy products alone probably consumes a more varied and maybe more balanced diet in general, which is beneficial overall.

And Gothelittle Rose, I'm very cautious about sugar/fat substitutes too! I'd rather have the real thing in smaller quantities than lots of artificial flavors in my diet.

Anonymous said...

One of my goals in life, once I have the budget and ability to do so, is to make as much as possible from scratch and not eat/serve anything that has artificial stuff in it. (DH will have to give up his cookies, oh no.) I've heard sooo much about how artificial colouring in foods can affect children adversly, I've seen the effects of a no/low-fat diet on my mom (she had SEVERE gall bladder problems for quite a while) and I've also seen & felt the effects of artificial sweeteners (bee-line to the bathroom and doesn't help my sugar addiction any!).

I've also heard about "Syndrom X" quite a bit, where there are so many health problems, hyper-tension, high colesterol, obesity, etc., that all seem linked (Caduet commercials?), but don't seem to have a common cause. My personal theory is that obesity is "Syndrom X", not simply another symptom of it. If we all can control our weight (look who's talking, with a good 75 pounds to lose (and that would leave me in the obese BMI category)) with real, unaltered food, I think many of these problems would go away.

My current plan of action is to make as much as I can from scratch, which I'm trying to do, and hopefully next year try to have a container veggie garden so we can eat fresh veggies with little cost. If we ever move into a house, I hope to be able to plant a good size garden and maybe a few fruit trees. We'll see what God has in mind for us.

Okay, I've rambled on long enough.

God Bless!

Anonymous said...

Hi Anna,

I've been reading your blog for a while, but only recently realized that you're a nutrition student. I am one too, and I find these posts fascinating. Thanks! :)

Anna S said...

Hi Michelle,

In fact, I'm not a student anymore :) I'm a fresh graduate! Yippee!!

Kelly said...

Anna, isn't it all interesting. We need to start to realize it is all connected. I guess the old advice of "everything in moderation" still holds up.

Have you seen studies on all the effects of artificial sweeters, color additives, etc?
I'm a bit of a whole foods advocate and I too try to stay away from all the artificial stuff. (As Pandabean mentioned.) I would love to hear your opinion on that. Probably should have sent that to you under your nutrition question option below.


Anna S said...

Kelly, yes, the old advice of 'everything in moderation' is the most important thing, in my opinion, people should remember about anything connected to nutrition. Same goes about artificial sweeteners. I've seen many studies, and they haven't been proved harmful, but I'm still cautious. I'm not hysterical about them and don't mind having them once in a while, but generally I try to avoid them, and if a woman is pregnant/breastfeeding, she should be even more cautious in my opinion.

Mrs. Brigham said...

What interesting conversation your post is bringing up, Anna! :o)

I admit that I am a bit of a "control freak" when it comes to my family's food. We avoid pretty much all unnatural ingredients and food additives in our household. I was ill with severe stomach problems for my entire life and was finally diagnosed with celiac disease and several severe food allergies when I was eighteen. After taking the glutenous grains and allergenic foods out of my diet, I still felt sick. I then made the choice to remove all artificial sweeteners, "fake" foods, MSG, colorings, flavorings, and other additives from my diet and was amazed at how well I felt. I truly did not know how ill I had been until this time. My husband also noticed a marked difference in his overall feelings of wellness once we made the diet change. FWIW, I just convinced my parents to give up their aspartame and my mom lost ten pounds within the first month! She has been trying to lose weight for this entire year, but had little success until she made this small change. :o)

Kristi said...

Hi Anna,
I think I remember seeing a link to in a comment someone left you a couple of weeks ago.
Early last year, I attended a seminar by the Weston A. Price foundation. There is a cookbook called Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon that is a wealth of information in this, as well as many other topics.

I haven't found it on the website, but the history of W.Price is that he was a dentist in the 1930's who was noticing the changes for the worse in many of his patients' teeth (overcrowded, narrow mouths/ tooth decay) as the American diet became more "packaged" and processed. He traveled all around the world, researching and documenting his findings as he visited Africa, South America, the American Indians, the Orient... He went to the places where the food had not been "westernized" and found that in many cases, the people were healthy, with beautiful teeth. He researched their diets and found several things in common.

Much of this research is in the Nourishing Traditions cookbook. It's as much a reference book as anything. One of the most interesting things about it is that most of the information given is very different than most of the popular and widely accepted dietary guidelines (the food pyramid, "good" and "bad" fats, etc.) and it really made me think.

On the website under "women's health" is an article called "Wise Choices, Healthy Bodies" where infertility is specifically addressed. It makes for an interesting read.

I'll stop there! God bless, Kristi

Anna S said...

Kristi, thanks for the interesting information!

Cinderellen said...

Hey Anna! Thanks for visiting my blog. :) I found this post very interesting also. I've always eaten a wide variety of different foods, but all very healthy. I "graze" throughout the day. (Eat what I need, and finish when I'm satisfied). It really helps. Whole foods are wonderful, and I agree with food colorings and artificial sweeteners that they probably arn't that good for you, (even though I don't usually follow that)lol ;) I haven't really looked but, its probably hard to find alot of foods that don't have those in it. Correct me if I'm wrong. Anyways, great post. God bless you greatly!!!

Karen said...

Well I am really angry about my weight right now for so many reasons.

For one I have been told I have PCOS because I had ovarian cysts but my cycles have ALWAYS been messed up even when I was a skinny kid (but it has not affected my fertility at all so it isn't really a big problem to me)and I've been checked so many times for problems by paranoid doctors who seem to think overweight = unhealthy, I am perfectly healthy in every respect. However I want to lose weight because people are so CRUEL! Women especially, they stare at me all the time and when I was younger they made rude remarks.

However, I can't lose weight! I try dieting and it just doesn't work for me anymore. I keep reducing the number of calories but still the scale does not budge. I'll lost 11 lbs. or so, but after that nothing. Weeks of dieting and nothing. A month - still nothing!! I walk as much as I can (I have 2 little kids!) and I reduced my calories to 1400 - then 1200...I'm still breastfeeding so I don't dare go below that. Still nothing!! I don't know what is wrong with my body but I seriously can not lose a pound! It's so frustrating eventually I just gave up but then I just started again hoping maybe this time it will be different but so far no luck!!

Katy-Anne said...

We too like to eat mostly whole foods and no additives, but sometimes with my cooking inability we still have to eat some processed foods. It's getting better though because I'm forcing myself to learn to cook. We eat wholewheat everything instead of its disgusting white flour substitutes. (I don't even like the taste of stuff made with white flour).

The Lord has truly blessed me. I was anorexic for years, and He has still for some reason unknown to me, decided to give me the desires of my heart and give me a baby. I am so thankful, but I also realize that with the damage I did to my body, I don't "deserve" my baby.

Health is a huge priority in our the natural way that is. We see natural doctors and eat natural foods.

Jaimie said...


Cutting calories never worked for me either. Have you heard/read about the South Beach Diet? I started on it last week (and wasn't even extremely strict about it) and lost 5 pounds in one week. You don't have to count calories or worry greatly about portion size. You can have lots of lean proteins, veggies, milk, and cheese, so it would work great while breastfeeding. It's worth looking into!

Anna S said...

Ellen: you're right, practically all processed foods have artificial sweeteners or colorings. That's why I prefer to make almost everything from scratch!

Kathleen said...

Yes, it IS so cool!! God made our bodies so amazing! And isn't HE amazing?!?! (And yes, I do get really excited about God and biology...pretty much every time it comes up.)

Rebekah S. said...

Just goes to show you why we are to care for the temple of the Holy Spirit-our bodies!! Thanks for a great post. Can't say that I'm surprised by what the studies have shown.

How much do you know about Stevia? I've heard that it is the most healthy sugar substitute out there and is actually good for your body.

Yes, aspartame is horrible! There have been studies that have shown that it causes cancer. And what angers me so much is that you can't seem to find any children's vitamins or gum without aspartame in them!

Anna S said...


I haven't done a thorough research on Stevia, but so far I only heard good things about it. It looks like a promising natural sugar substitute.

However, I don't think we should be too dramatic about artificial sweeteners either. Sure, it's better to avoid them, but a little bit once in a while wasn't proved as dangerous.

Rebekah S. said...

Yes, that's true.

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

I can sympathize! When I'm breastfeeding, it is EXTREMELY hard for me to lose weight, too. I'm coming to the conclusion that this is just the way my body is - it thinks that if I'm feeding a baby, I NEED all that weight! I'm healthy, eat healthy foods, and exercise regularly, and I'm still overweight. It IS frustrating. After my first baby, I got pregnant while I was still breastfeeding. I weaned my first son when I was about 8 weeks into the second pregnancy, and BAM, lost ten pounds. So maybe you should just hang in there until you aren't breastfeeding anymore! :)

Sammybunny said...

As a person with PCOS, I understand the fear of infertility. I am unmarried although my beau and I have been together for a long time and eventually plan to marry. I was diagnosed with PCOS and had to go on a very strict diet to get my body back into a healthy hormone producing shape. Of course they through me on the pill but i went off after a year and my condition SWIFTLY declined (I have no doubt that it was from the pill and its horrible effects in my body). I met a wonderful christian doctor who does not prescribe the pill AT ALL and only treats with natural progesterone (*exactly what our bodies make) and diet. I have lost thirty pounds and am at a VERY healthy weight for my 5'4" frame and I am so blessed with the health God is giving me. I know that if I honor this body, God will honor His promises. I look forward to a happy life with children if it is His will.