Celiac Disease and Infertility

Submitted by Kate Seldman Thu 06/02/2011

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which the body can’t absorb certain nutrients in food. The disease damages the small intestine. Whenever foods containing gluten are consumed, the body begins attacking the small intestine, leading to pain, diarrhea, fatigue, malnourishment, and sometimes depression. Some people with celiac disease don’t have any symptoms, and so it can be hard to diagnose. The disorder can affect fertility. Several studies have found that women with unexplained infertility are 4 to 8 percent more likely to have celiac disease. Up to 39% of women who had untreated celiac disease experienced times where they didn’t have a normal menstrual cycle. Some women missed periods altogether. Young girls with undiagnosed or untreated celiac disease often start their periods later than other females, and can reach menopause four to five years earlier than the norm. Women with celiac disease can also experience repeated miscarriages. Men with celiac disease may suffer from gonadal dysfunction, which can affect their fertility. They may have a low sperm count, reduced sperm function, or deformed sperm. Their testosterone levels can also be low. While women with celiac disease often suffer from malabsorption of important nutrients, tests have shown that women with celiac and infertility don’t always seem to be deficient in folate, iron, or vitamin B-12, which suggests that there are other factors at work when it comes to how celiac affects fertility. Researchers are currently conducting tests to see what these other factors might be. It’s possible, however, to reverse infertility in celiac patients: following a gluten-free diet has been shown to help women with celiac disease conceive successfully. Once a woman with celiac does conceive, it’s important for her to keep following the diet, which involves cutting out wheat, rye and barley gluten. If she goes off the diet, she places her baby at risk for low birth weight, and she could also shorten the period of time she’s able to breastfeed her infant. It may take time for a woman to correct infertility problems through the gluten-free diet: according to Dr. Peter Green, the director of the Celiac Disease Center at New York’s Columbia University, one of his patients successfully conceived after nine months on a gluten-free diet.

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