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Can Celiac Disease Affect Fertility?

The Reproductive Health Risks

Time to take a breath of fresh air! May is always an exciting month as it seems to make our transition to spring official—even more so this year after the harsh winter we endured. Nature comes to life in our city once again, as blooming flowers and trees provide pops of colour and chirping birds bring music to our ears. Baby animals are born in spring. And did you know that our own species tends to give birth just shortly thereafter? That’s right, summer is the top season for births in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research findings are consistent for Canadian births.

However, spring is not picture perfect for everyone. While millions of North American women are now weeks away from expecting a baby, many are unable to conceive. It goes without saying that infertility can put extreme physical, emotional and financial stress on women and men.

May is also Celiac Disease Awareness Month. So let’s take a look at a topic that deserves more attention: the link between celiac disease and reproductive health.

Infertility is the inability of a woman or man to contribute to the conception of a baby biologically. Many experts define infertility as not being able to get pregnant after at least one year of trying. According to research, approximately one in six couples experience infertility. About 35% of fertility problems are linked to the male partner. These numbers are similar in Canada and the United States.

A recent Canadian study published in the Journal of Human Reproduction found that infertility is rising in Canada. The research revealed that up to 16% of couples where the woman is between the ages of 18 to 44 are unable to conceive. That number has nearly doubled since the last time infertility was measured in Canada, about 20 years ago. The authors of the study discuss infertility risk factors such as the impact of age, alcohol use, obesity and sexually transmitted infections.

When I had trouble getting pregnant with my children, I wondered whether “unexplained cases” of infertility could perhaps be linked to celiac disease and/or nutritional deficiencies. As it happens, current research validates this. The medical community now refers to celiac disease as a major risk factor for infertility in both males and females.

Research conducted across North America and Europe over the last decade or so shows that celiac disease is a risk factor in infertility and overall reproductive health. Studies over the past several years have found that women suffering from unexplained infertility may have “silent” celiac disease. One study from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia found that the rate of miscarriage and infertility in celiac disease patients is at least four times higher. They recommend that women who experience miscarriage or unexplained infertility should be screened for celiac disease. A research study conducted by the Department of Medicine at Tampere University Hospital and Medical School at the University of Tampere in Finland found that female celiac patients who do not properly follow a gluten-free diet, experience early menopause and an overall shorter reproductive period.

What can you do if you or someone you care about is having difficulty conceiving a child and you suspect that celiac disease may be the cause? Here are a few tips.

  • Talk to your doctor. Discuss any celiac disease–related symptoms you are suspicious of - or discuss the lack thereof and your concern about possibly having “silent” celiac disease. The disease can exist without noticeable symptoms.
     
  • Find out from your doctor whether you are a candidate for a blood test to screen for celiac disease. Be aware that the test is not effective if you remove gluten from your diet prior to the test.
     
  • Ask your doctor to screen your blood for iron, B12 and vitamin D levels and discuss the results. Lower-than-normal levels of these nutrients in your blood might be another clue that you have celiac disease.
     
  • Seek out emotional support from family, friends and a trusted professional if you are experiencing difficulty conceiving a child, whether or not you have celiac disease. There are many support groups online and in person, as well as helpful websites such as UnspokenGrief.com.
     
  • Keep a positive attitude. Although often easier said than done, it will work in your favour, no matter which direction life takes you in.

 

Lisa Cantkier is a lifelong celiac, nutrition coach at Toronto’s Liberty Clinic, and founder of GlutenFreeFind.com