What does Research Say About Gluten, Celiac Disease and Fertility?
According to official government figures, one in nine couples in Australia of reproductive age experience fertility issues. While some of the causes can be obvious, others, such as celiac disease, are not.
One of the less talked about causes could be gluten intolerance. Gluten is a globular protein present in wheat and other grains that can cause digestive issues in people with celiac disease or intolerance. But recent studies suggest that it may also be having an impact on fertility.
A recent study published in Human Reproduction Update found that women with celiac disease were 50 per cent more prone to fertility issues than women without the condition.
While researchers don’t know why is it happening, they do have some theories as to how gluten could be interfering with fertility:
Unexplained Infertility and Undiagnosed Celiac Disease
Many factors contribute to infertility, but undiagnosed celiac disease is one of the most common.
The body’s intolerance causes celiac disease to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. It is a type of autoimmune disease. If you have celiac disease and eat gluten foods, your body will attack itself and damage the small intestine. Over time, this can cause problems in your digestive system, malnutrition, and other issues.
The symptoms of celiac disease vary from person to person, but they often include weight loss, diarrhea or constipation, gas and bloating, joint pain, and fatigue. It’s crucial to see that you talk to your doctor right away if you have these symptoms.
Suppose you suspect celiac disease (or another type of food sensitivity), talk with your doctor and get a blood test. The celiac antibody blood test or biopsy of the small intestine can confirm the disease.
Suppose you’re diagnosed with celiac disease or another food sensitivity like celiac sprue (an autoimmune disorder). In that case, you must follow a strict diet that eliminates foods containing gluten — including wheat products like pasta noodles.
Undiagnosed Celiac Disease, Recurrent Miscarriage, and Infertility
The research on gluten’s impact on your fertility is limited, and there haven’t been any double-blind, large-scale studies on this topic. However, some other studies look at how celiac disease can affect fertility. If you have infertility, your physician might want to rule out celiac disease before moving forward with other treatment options.
Celiac disease is caused when your body cannot digest gluten due to an immune system reaction. It affects 1% of the population in the United States. The most common symptoms include diarrhea and weight loss, but many others can occur.
There are no reliable tests to diagnose celiac disease except for a small intestine biopsy. It means that if you have symptoms of celiac disease but they go away after eating gluten-free, your doctor might not test you.
Recurrent Miscarriage and Gluten Sensitivity
A study published in Human Reproduction also found an association between undiagnosed celiac disease and recurrent miscarriage. Of the 75 women included in this study who had experienced at least one miscarriage, 24 (32%) were diagnosed with celiac disease. Of these 24 women, only one had experienced a second miscarriage after starting a gluten-free diet.
Your OBGYN might consider a test for celiac disease if you have recurrent miscarriages.
Could Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity Cause Infertility?
The protein gluten is everywhere. It’s in our food, medicine, and even supplements that are supposed to be “all-natural.” But can you avoid gluten without eliminating it from your diet? According to a peer-reviewed study, non-celiac gluten sensitivity may cause infertility in some women.
The two-year-long study involved 23 women between 18 and 40 years old. Of those women, 21 had been diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) after eliminating gluten from their diets for six months. The remaining two control subjects had no history of digestive problems or food sensitivities.
Researchers then measured each subject’s blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar levels, and serum cortisol levels before and after eating a slice of bread with high gluten content (2 grams per 100 grams). Those who tested positive for NCGS experienced higher levels of stress hormones than those who didn’t have NCGS — which can negatively impact fertility in women by triggering miscarriage or causing low birth weight babies.
Gluten, Natural Killer Cells, and Autoimmune Infertility
It is a globulous protein present in wheat, barley, and rye. If you are sensitive to gluten, consuming it can negatively affect your fertility.
Natural Killer Cells (NK cells):
NK cells are important for protecting against infections and cancer. Research has shown that NK cells can be negatively affected by gluten consumption. However, scientists have conducted this study on men; whether this finding applies to women with celiac disease remains unclear.
Autoimmune Infertility. Autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or rheumatoid arthritis can negatively impact fertility because they increase the risk of miscarriage and early labour. These conditions may also cause infertility by increasing the risk of antiphospholipid syndrome.
Natural Killer (NK) Cells, Gluten, and Infertility
NK cells are an integral part of the immune system that play a key role in protecting against viruses, bacteria, and tumour cells. A new study suggests that low NK cell activity is associated with infertility in women.
The study included 1,890 women who had been trying for pregnancy for at least three months without success. Researchers measured their NK cell activity and compared it to their fertility outcomes. Women with low NK cell activity were twice as likely not to become pregnant within a year as those with higher levels of NK cells.
Natural Killer Cells: A Key Component of Your Immune System
NK cells serve as the body’s first defence against viral infections, bacteria, and tumours. Their job is to seek out foreign invaders and destroy them before they can cause harm. The more active your NK cells are, the more likely you will have an effective immune response against pathogens or cancerous cells.
In recent years, scientists have conducted several studies on how gluten may impact fertility by suppressing immunity through the gut barrier. This new study adds another piece to this puzzle by showing how gluten may directly damage your immune system’s ability to fight pathogens, which could impair fertility.
ANA, Infertility, and Gluten
The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) reports that one in six Americans has an autoimmune disease. Examples of a few autoimmune disorders are rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and celiac disease.
The antibodies that attack normal tissue in autoimmune disorders are called autoantibodies. Special white blood cells called B lymphocytes produce these antibodies and direct them against specific antigens on various cells and tissues in the body. The ANA test is a routine test conducted in Australia to measure antibody levels against different cell types and tissues found in a person’s blood sample. Many factors can influence the results of this test, including pregnancy, stress, and illness. An ANA result does not indicate whether a person has an autoimmune disorder. However, when combined with other tests such as anti-dsDNA or anti-ssDNA plus anti-ENA titers, it may help identify individuals at risk of developing certain autoimmune diseases such as lupus or Sjogren’s syndrome (SS).
Does Gluten Cause More Pelvic Pain in Celiac Disease?
New research in Italy suggests that gluten might increase pelvic pain in women. The study found that women with endometriosis who cut out gluten had lower levels of pelvic pain than those who didn’t.
Endometriosis results in tissue growth similar to the uterine lining outside the uterus. It can cause severe abdominal pain, heavy or irregular bleeding, and infertility.
People with celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten and must avoid foods containing it. A blood test to detect antibodies against gluten can diagnose the condition. Only people with celiac disease have these antibodies in their blood.
The researchers examined data collected from 1,075 women who had been diagnosed with endometriosis at seven Italian hospitals between 2006 and 2015. The participating women were divided into the following two groups:
- The first group was made up of 715 women who had been on a gluten-free diet for at least six months before their diagnosis;
- The other group consisted of 360 women who did not follow a gluten-free diet but did not have celiac disease or another condition requiring them to avoid gluten consumption (e.g., irritable bowel syndrome).
Endometriosis and Undiagnosed Celiac Disease
In some women, the symptoms of endometriosis can be mild, but they are all related to uterine tissue outside the uterus. The most common symptom is pelvic pain, but some women also experience painful periods, infertility, painful sexual intercourse, and urinary problems such as frequent urination or urinary tract infections (UTIs).
The exact cause of endometriosis is still unknown. However, there are several theories about how it develops. One theory is that the body’s immune system attacks cells in the uterus lining. Another theory is that blood vessels become attached to these cells and bring them back into the uterus each month when a woman has her period. The blood vessels also carry nutrients and oxygen to these rogue cells so they can grow and survive on their own.
The symptoms of undiagnosed celiac disease can be very mild or very severe. For example, some people don’t have any digestive symptoms; instead, they have other gluten sensitivity problems like headaches, joint pain, or even depression.
PCOS, Gluten, and Insulin Resistance
Many studies link gluten intolerance to PCOS, as gluten triggers an immune response in some people. It causes an increase in inflammation throughout the body, leading to several health conditions, including infertility.
Insulin resistance is another common problem in women with PCOS. Insulin is a hormone that helps your body use sugar from foods as energy. When you have insulin resistance (sometimes called metabolic syndrome), your body produces too much insulin or doesn’t normally respond. Oversecretion of insulin causes blood sugar levels to rise, making you feel hungry and causing other symptoms like fatigue or headaches.
Gluten intolerance can also cause inflammation in the gut, leading to intestinal permeability or “leaky gut” syndrome. It causes food particles to leak through the intestines into the bloodstream, where they shouldn’t be present. These particles trigger an immune response, leading to more inflammation and worsening symptoms like those listed above.
Diabetes and Fertility
According to Diabetes Australia, about 1 in 4 women with diabetes will have fertility problems. If you are trying to improve your fertility, it may be time to consider reducing or eliminating your gluten consumption.
Research links gluten consumption to various health problems, including celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Some studies have shown that women sensitive to gluten may experience changes in their menstrual cycle, leading to infertility issues. Research also suggests that eating foods with gluten may cause inflammation throughout the body, leading to infertility issues.
Should You Go Gluten-Free Even if you Don’t Have Celiac Disease?
Gluten-free diets have become more popular, especially among women who want to conceive. But is there any science behind the trend? Here’s what researchers have found.
In one study, women who ate a gluten-free diet were less likely to get pregnant after one year than those who did not.
In another study, women diagnosed with celiac disease were more likely to be infertile than other people. An immune reaction to eating gluten causes celiac disease.
Some research has suggested that women with celiac disease may have a higher risk of miscarriage and fertility problems. But scientists are unclear whether gluten or some other factors causes these problems.
Other studies concluded that people who do not have celiac disease but eat a lot of gluten might risk infertility, but it’s not clear why this would be true.
The jury is still out regarding the effect of gluten on fertility and pregnancy. However, studies indicate that women with celiac disease may benefit from eliminating gluten from their diet.