Could eating gluten prevent you from getting pregnant? If you have celiac disease the medical research says yes. It's a common myth that celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the small intestine, just affects the digestive tract. Celiac disease can affect almost every system in the body including the reproductive system in both men and women. Celiac disease has been linked to infertility, miscarriage and low birth weight in women and low sperm count in men.
Female Fertility and Celiac Disease
A recent study showed that women with celiac disease have a 3.5 times greater risk of having infertility compared to women without the condition (1) . Several studies have reported miscarriage rates to be substantially higher among women with untreated celiac disease than among healthy women, with one study showing that the likelihood of having at least one complication during pregnancy has been estimated to be at least four times higher in celiac women than in healthy women (2).
Why Does Celiac Disease Cause Infertility in Women?
Lower absorption of nutrients
Celiac disease can cause damage to your small intestine making it difficult for your body to absorb nutrients. Micronutrients such as zinc, selenium or folic acid have been shown to be low in those with celiac disease. Both zinc and selenium deficiencies have been shown to directly affect the hormones that control ovulation.
Interestingly enough in a series of published studies by Collin et al., celiac patients with infertility showed neither severe malnutrition nor signs of trace element deficiency; only two had iron deficiency (3). So vitamin deficiencies may or may not be a contributing factor.
Lower Body Weight
Untreated celiac disease and lack of absorption of the food you're eating can lead to being under weight. Being underweight can affect your chances of becoming pregnant and can cause infertility.
Having celiac disease increases the risk of someone having certain hormonal disorders. Thyroid dysfunction is common in those with celiac disease which can disrupt ovarian function.
Male Fertility and Celiac Disease
Infertility isn't just a problem in women with celiac disease but also with men. Italian researchers have noted that male celiac disease patients have a greater risk of infertility and other reproductive issues, as well as a greater incidence of androgen (male hormone) deficiency (4). There has also been documented reduced sperm counts that may be due to nutritional and hormonal deficiencies in men with celiac disease.
If a woman with undiagnosed celiac disease is able to become pregnant, there can be a negative effect on the baby. A recent study associated celiac disease with significant increases in miscarriage and premature delivery (5). Most of the celiac disease-related pregnancy problems seem to occur in women who have not yet been diagnosed with celiac, or in women who have been diagnosed but who are not following the gluten-free diet.
Is There Still a Risk After Diagnosis?
After a diagnosis of celiac disease and a treatment of a gluten free diet studies have shown fertility to go back to normal. To have a healthy pregnancy tt's important to be as healthy as possible and to make sure you're strictly following a gluten free diet, that your celiac disease symptoms have gone away and that you've resolved any vitamin deficiencies. Discussing your celiac disease and fertility with your OB/GYN is important before trying to conceive.
Lowering Your Risk
Shelley Case, BSc, RD, a member of the medical advisory boards of the Celiac Disease Foundation and Gluten Intolerance Group in the United States and the professional advisory board of the Canadian Celiac Association says "Although there isn’t a standard optimal waiting period, celiac antibody levels should be normalized. “The best advice I can give is that the woman’s celiac disease should be well controlled and the antibodies returned to normal".
If you have been experiencing symptoms of celiac disease and are struggling with infertility it may be worth talking to your doctor and getting tested.