What to know about this gluten-intolerant disorder and its reproductive health impacts
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects around 1% of the population worldwide. The disease is only treatable by following a gluten-free diet.
While celiac disease (CD) has long been associated with gastrointestinal symptoms, research published in the Human Reproduction journal suggests that it may impact fertility too.
Should you be concerned and, if so, what is the best course for treatment? We can help.
What research says about celiac disease and the risk of fertility problems
Are there links between celiac disease and infertility? This is a question that many people have asked over the years, but it is not a straightforward answer. Yes, there is evidence suggesting a connection between celiac disease and the risk of infertility. However, pregnancy rates of those under treatment for the condition are about the same as those without. Further research is needed before definitive conclusions can be drawn.
So here is what we do know. This autoimmune disorder causes damage to the lining of the small intestine, leading to inflammation and malabsorption of nutrients. Some people will feel no ill effect that others may experience such as fatigue, anemia, depression, constipation and other gastral issues.
The lack of nutrients such as iron, selenium, folic acid and zinc is one reason why untreated celiac disease may affect a woman’s fertility. In women with celiac disease, this malabsorption of nutrients is linked to increased pregnancy complications, early pregnancy loss (before 20 weeks of gestation) and premature delivery. It’s also possible that the inflammation caused by gluten may lead to problems with ovulation and fertilization.
Because of these multiple links of CD to reproduction, many experts recommend that women with unexplained infertility – a diagnosis my wife and I are very familiar with – be screened for celiac disease. A diagnosis of unexplained infertility means that our normal tests and medical insights don’t identify a specific source. That means CD may be something we need to test for.
Although research into the effects on women is more established, studies also suggest a connection to male infertility – from difficulty with conception to low sperm count and poor sperm motility. Additionally, celiac disease has been associated with an increased risk of erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems in men, which can further reduce the chances of successful conception.
However, more research needs to be done in this area before conclusions can be made about direct causality.
Can you still get pregnant? Treating infertility related to celiac disease.
Many people don’t know they have celiac disease. Symptoms of it are related to reaction to gluten and include a wide range of signs, including abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea and weight loss. If you experience such symptoms, you may want to have your primary care doctor test for it.
If you have celiac disease, the first thing you should know is that it’s not going to stop you from getting pregnant. It may be harder than for some other people, but it is possible.
In fact, research shows that those with treated celiac disease have much better outcomes. So, if you have celiac disease and you’re trying to conceive a baby, make sure to follow a gluten-free diet. Even so, because there is no cure for the disease but only symptom management, those with CD may need to take other steps to help increase the chances of getting pregnant and having a healthy pregnancy.
How an infertility doctor can help
The first step is finding a good infertility doctor who understands celiac disease and how it affects fertility. They should also be familiar with the latest research and treatments for helping couples conceive with compromised immune systems (like those with celiac). This is particularly important if someone has been diagnosed with unexplained infertility.
Next, make sure the woman’s body is ready for pregnancy. This includes ensuring any other health problems (like diabetes) are under control before trying to conceive. For those with the disease, it also means following a strict gluten-free diet, the primary treatment for celiac disease. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). This means eating only whole foods that don’t contain gluten, such as meats, fruits, vegetables and eggs, as well as specifically processed gluten-free foods.
All that being said, it’s important to keep in mind that celiac disease itself doesn’t cause infertility it just makes it more difficult for the body to get or stay pregnant. Going gluten-free and finding the right fertility doctor for you can make all the difference on your journey to parenthood.