The menstrual cycle is intrinsically linked to our overall health, and can be a good indicator of whether your body is functioning to the best of its ability or not. It’s no wonder, then, that eating disorders – including anorexia nervosa, bulimia and even binge-eating – can have a significant impact on your period.
Here, we take a closer look at the link between the two with help from female health app Clue.
What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders are mental health conditions characterised by abnormal or disturbed eating habits. They can include extreme restrictions of food intake, extreme over-eating or even instances of eating non-food items. There are also, as the team at Clue point out, a lot of misconceptions surrounding eating disorders.
“People often think of emaciated models when they think of eating disorders, but this is not the only way that someone with an eating disorder will look. Not everyone who has an eating disorder is really thin—just as not everyone who is thin has an eating disorder… Regardless of the type of eating disorder, the common result among all eating disorders is that they cause serious physical, physiological, or social impairments.”
Anorexia vs. Periods
Anorexia nervosa – whereby an individual restricts energy intake to the point of severe weight loss – is a known cause of amenorrhea, which is where menstruation does not occur for three or more months.
“People with eating disorders often experience amenorrhea due to extreme weight loss and starvation of the body. This particular kind of amenorrhea is called secondary amenorrhea… During states of undernourishment, the body does not have enough ‘fuel’ to run properly, and has to prioritize which bodily functions are the most important to life. Processes that are not essential to staying alive—like growth and reproductive function—may get less energy.”
As a result, the functionality of the hypothalamus (AKA the control centre in your brain which regulates many of the hormonal fluctuations within the body) can become suppressed, and normal hormonal fluctuations like those that regulate the menstrual cycle may be altered or halted.
However, it’s important to remember that not everyone who has an eating disorder will present with amenorrhea. Some may continue to have periods of normal length, while others may suffer with irregular periods.
Other ways anorexia affects the body
Periods aren’t the only thing that suffers when your body goes into starvation mode – which is essentially what happens with anorexia.
“Vital signs, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature are all often low, and arrhythmias (abnormal heart rate patterns) are also possible. Many of these changes are reversible when a person recovers and improves their body weight and nutritional intake — but some damage, like bone density loss, may be more persistent.”
People with eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa, are also more likely to have some concurrent psychological disorders such as obsessive-compulsive traits, depression, anxiety, social phobias, and perfectionistic pursuits.
In amenorrheic people with severe restricting eating disorders, the period itself acts as an extra vital sign — a barometer for health. Its absence indicates that the body cannot maintain itself, and is failing to function normally.
“This is a warning sign, and should not be taken lightly. Once treatment progresses and energy deficits are improved or restored, a return of menstruation and normal hormone cycling is a positive indicator of health.”
Adding to this, Anna Ezell, a licensed clinical social worker and eating disorder specialist, says:
“Early identification and treatment of anorexia nervosa significantly improves the rate of recovery. However, people with eating disorders typically delay seeking treatment for approximately 8 years. This suggests that people with eating disorders experience significant barriers to seeking help.”
If you are struggling with eating or are feeling overwhelmed by attainable physical goals, seek help from a healthcare provider, counsellor, therapist, family member, or friend.