What’s the connection between Celiac Disease or Gluten Intolerance and Infertility?
Osteoporosis, depression, anemia—these seemingly unrelated conditions can be the result of undiagnosed or untreated celiac disease. So it should be no surprise that researchers are now discovering a connection between celiac disease, gluten intolerance and unexplained infertility in men and women.
Let’s start at the beginning: what is infertility?
Infertility is defined as the biological inability of a woman or man to contribute to conception. Many experts define infertility as not being able to get pregnant after at least one year of trying. Women who are able to get pregnant but then have repeat miscarriages are also said to be infertile. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, roughly 12% of women in the United States—up to 7.3 million—had difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a baby to term in 2002.
Although it is commonly believed that infertility is heavily related to female factors, only about one-third of cases of infertility actually stem from the woman. About one-third of cases originate with the male partner and the remaining cases are a combination of unknown factors or a mix of male and female complications.
Infertility in Women:
Most women who suffer from infertility have a problem with ovulation, meaning there is a complication with the eggs being released to be fertilized. Other causes of infertility include:
Problems with the uterus lining
Blocked fallopian tubes because of endometriosis, ectopic pregnancy, or pelvic inflammatory disease.
Infertility in Men:
Infertility in men is generally caused by producing too few or no sperm. The problem may also be the sperm’s ability to travel to the female’s egg and fertilize it. This is typically caused by abnormal sperm shape that prevents it from traveling in the correct form.
Celiac Disease, Gluten Intolerance and Infertility
Over the past decade, a handful of revealing studies have examined the link between celiac disease, gluten intolerance and infertility. Medical experts are taking a closer look at this research and drawing some interesting conclusions.
“There have been some studies, mainly from Europe, that have looked at celiac disease in patients with infertility and have suggested a little bit higher prevalence [of celiac disease] in patients who have infertility,” says Marcelle Cedars, MD, director of the division of reproductive endocrinology and infertility and the in vitro fertilization program at the University of California, San Francisco.
According to Dr. Cedars, research suggests that diagnosing and treating celiac disease with a gluten-free diet may help improve fertility in some people.
The latest clinical findings include:
One study conducted by physicians at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia found that the rate of recurrent spontaneous abortion (RSAB) and infertility in celiac disease patients is at least four times higher than the general population. They suggested that patients who experience unexplained infertility or RSAB should be screened for celiac disease.
Another study from the Department of Medicine at Tampere University Hospital and Medical School at the University of Tampere, Finland found that the rate of celiac disease among women reporting infertility was 4.1%. Although the exact reason for the increased risk remains unknown, the researchers suggested that female celiac patients who are not adhering to a gluten-free diet have a shortened reproductive period and early menopause. Males with celiac disease have shown gonadal dysfunction, which could also contribute to fertility complications.
The link between celiac disease and infertility is currently being evaluated by researchers at Molinette Hospital in Turin, Italy. Early reports from their research suggest that the prevalence of celiac disease among women with unexplained infertility is 2.5% to 3.5% higher than the control population. They suggest that celiac disease represents a risk for abortion, low birth weight babies and short-breast feeding periods, all of which can be corrected with a gluten-free diet.
Consider Screening for Celiac Disease if You Have Unexplained Infertility
Many researchers and clinicians now recommend that you be screened for celiac disease if you have unexplained infertility—especially if you have classic celiac disease symptoms or risk factors.
However, many of the women diagnosed in these infertility studies had subtle symptoms of celiac disease or even so-called “clinically silent” celiac disease or gluten intolerance, in which they had no apparent symptoms. So you shouldn’t rely on your symptoms to determine your risk for the condition.
If you’re infertile and you have celiac disease, there’s hope: many previously infertile women (the Founder of Gluten Free Labels – Kelly LeDonni) were able to conceive successfully after being diagnosed with celiac disease and adopting a gluten-free lifestyle.
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Sources: CeliacCentral.org; about.com; EverydayHealth.com