Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine characterized by an intolerance and/or allergic reaction to gluten, which is the elastic, binding protein found in wheat. As a result, the wall of the small intestine becomes significantly damaged. Its ability to convert food into energy and absorb dietary vitamins and nutrients through the intestinal wall diminishes drastically, leaving the sufferer malnourished with various, significant vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
How quickly the small intestine can rebound from the damage caused by ingesting gluten depends on a number of factors that include age, how much gluten was ingested and for how long. Depending on these factors, it can take anywhere from 6 weeks to a few years for the small intestine to completely heal. Even though the symptoms associated with celiac disease and ingesting gluten may disappear much earlier, the small intestine requires much more time to rebuild itself. Once on a gluten-free diet, the body grows accustomed to not having to process it, and ‘cheating’ causes the associated symptoms to increase in intensity and discomfort. It is important to note that ‘cheating just a little’ does not alleviate the extent to which the small intestine is damaged or minimize the symptoms associated with it. In fact, the healing process of the small intestine must start all over again.
Today, celiac disease is considered one of the most common chronic health disorders in western society. A decade ago celiac disease was considered fairly rare and it was thought to only affect 1 in 2,500 people, and that it targeted mostly children and young adults. Not so. Recent studies have indicated that celiac disease can target people of all ages. Shockingly, recent studies have also shown that 1 in 133 people have celiac disease, but only 1 in 4,700 people are properly diagnosed.
Symptoms vary very greatly from person to person, but can often include chronic diarrhea, extreme fatigue, abdominal bloating, weight loss, obesity, nausea, muscle weakness, panic attacks, fluid retention, abdominal cramping, flatulence, brain fog, lack of concentration, attention problems, depression, anemia and vertigo. While some celiacs can suffer from all of the above, others may have entirely different symptoms and in some cases, for example, no gastrointestinal problems at all. Some sufferers are extremely sensitive, especially if they are already on a gluten-free diet. In many cases, symptoms associated with eating the most minute amount of gluten can last anywhere from one day to 6 weeks. This symptomatic variance makes celiac disease one of the most under-diagnosed, undetectable disorders around. If left untreated, and those with celiac disease continue to eat gluten, their risk of gastrointestinal cancer is 40-100 times greater than the normal population. Furthermore, people with untreated celiac disease are more susceptible to and can often worsen the symptoms of the following: anemia, arthritis, osteoporosis, ataxia, lactose intolerance, dermatitis, liver disease, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, obesity, pancreatic and thyroid disorders, type 1 diabetes, nerve disease and infertility.
Since I myself am gluten intolerant, I could quite possibly write a novel on the subject, but let’s now address the true purpose of this blog – how celiac disease affects fertility, pregnancy and various functions of the reproductive system.
It remains somewhat unclear as to why people with undiagnosed or untreated celiac disease also suffer from infertility, but several studies have indicated a strong correlation between women with celiac disease and high rates of infertility. The most obvious reason for this would be the malabsorption of countless vitamins and minerals, many of which are central to achieving optimal wellness and fertility. One study found that women with celiac disease had fewer children before being diagnosed. An Italian study concluded that men who suffer from celiac disease are also at greater risk of infertility and are prone to deficiencies of the male hormone androgen. If you have any of the classic symptoms or risk factors, a visit to the doctor and being screened for celiac disease is recommended to those suffering from unexplained infertility.
Celiac disease can cause a plethora of health problems during pregnancy. Pregnant women with celiac disease are 4 times more prone to pregnancy problems and complications than those who do not suffer from the disease. Pregnant women with untreated celiac disease are more prone to miscarriages, low birth-weight babies, higher rates of severe anemia, shorter pregnancies, placental abruption, pregnancy-induced hypertension, uterine hyperkinesia and stunted fetal growth.
A study conducted in Italy entitled ‘Reproductive Life Disorders in Italian Celiac Women’ found that celiac disease also impacts menstrual cycles. It concluded that amongst the 62 women tested with confirmed celiac disease, almost 20% of them had skipped their menstrual cycles while not pregnant. What is interesting is that some women have reported that they started having irregular periods long before any other symptoms of celiac disease manifested themselves. Furthermore, a strong correlation exists between women with celiac disease and extremely painful periods. Many women have reported less menstrual pain and regular menstrual cycles while on a strict gluten-free diet.
As previously mentioned, due to the variation of symptoms associated with celiac disease, you should not rely on your symptoms to determine your risk of having it. Again, if you have been struggling with infertility problems it may be worthwhile to make an appointment with your doctor and get screened for celiac disease.
But don’t be scared! There are so many wonderful alternatives out there! Bread products, baked goods and pastas can be made or bought with alternative flours made from rice, almonds or corn. But that’s just the beginning. The Canadian Celiac Association’s online site provides all the support and information you may need.