Infertility is a common problem that affects both men and women. It’s defined as the inability to conceive naturally or to successfully carry a pregnancy to term. In the United States, 7.5 million women between the ages of 15 and 44 have received treatment for infertility. And it’s estimated that 1 in 8 couples have infertility.
There are many causes for infertility, but up to 30 percent of couples who are infertile will be told that no specific reason for their infertility can be found. When this happens, a diagnosis of unexplained infertility is given.
In recent years, awareness of celiac disease has increased. Celiac disease is a chronic autoimmune disorder. As awareness for celiac disease has increased, some researchers have started looking at a possible link between celiac disease and unexplained infertility.
There are many known causes for infertility. Infertility in women may be caused by hormonal disorders, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, or endometriosis. Infertility in men may be caused by:
- low sperm count
- sperm with mobility or motility issues
- enlarged veins in the scrotum, called varicocele
- Klinefelter syndrome, a genetic disorder
Sometimes no cause can be identified to explain infertility. This is known as unexplained infertility. But unexplained doesn’t mean untreatable.
Many people with this diagnosis successfully become parents through infertility treatments, like medication, intrauterine insemination, or in vitro fertilization (IVF). Some of these treatments can be expensive, time-consuming, and invasive. If you have celiac disease and unexplained infertility, many of these treatments may be unnecessary.
Celiac disease is hereditary, so it’s not unusual for immediate family members, such as a parent, siblings, or children, to share the disorder. If you have a close family member with celiac disease, there is a 10 percent chance that you may develop it, too.
People with this disease are allergic to gluten. Gluten is a protein. It’s found in products that contain wheat, barley, or rye. If you have celiac disease and eat gluten, your immune system will launch an attack on your small intestine. That causes increasing amounts of damage over time.
This damage often results in ongoing gastrointestinal symptoms, such as vomiting, chronic diarrhea, and stomach pain and cramps.
A number of symptoms may also affect the reproductive system of women. They include:
- delayed onset of menstruation
- irregular periods
- no periods, known as amenorrhea
- chronic pelvic pain
Celiac disease may also be asymptomatic, meaning you show no symptoms at all. This is one of the reasons why it may be difficult for some people and their doctors to connect the dots between celiac disease and unexplained infertility.
Experts don’t fully understand the effects of celiac disease on the reproductive system. The effects may be caused by malabsorption of nutrients, the impact it has on the immune system, or another currently unexplored reason.
Some studies have noticed a link in untreated celiac disease in the mother and recurrent miscarriage, preterm birth, and low birth weight.
In a meta-analysis that looked at studies on infertility and celiac disease, researchers noted that women with infertility were over three times more likely to have celiac disease than the control group.
Also, women with unexplained infertility were six times more likely to have celiac disease than women in the control group.
Despite these studies, not all experts in the field of infertility are convinced about the connection. More research is needed.
If celiac disease or gluten sensitivity runs in your family, or you suspect you have celiac disease, make a list of your symptoms. You’ll want to discuss your concern with your doctor and ask to be screened for celiac disease.
There is no cure for celiac disease, but you can eliminate your symptoms by completely removing gluten from your diet. If you are trying to get pregnant, you can try eating a gluten-free diet while attempting natural conception.
Based on your age, you may wish to cap the amount of time you take to try this method. If you do not conceive, or continue to have miscarriages, you may have an infertility issue, possibly in addition to celiac disease.
A reproductive endocrinologist can test both you and your partner for infertility issues. They may recommend medications to boost or regulate ovulation. They may also suggest surgery to remove scar tissue from your tubes or uterus, or perform intrauterine inseminations or IVF.
Many people with infertility do not require IVF. Infertility is successfully treated with medication or surgery in 85 to 90 percent of people.
If you are vigilant about eliminating gluten from your diet, you will stop the damage celiac disease is doing to your body. That may include lessening or eliminating the impact it may be having on your reproductive system.
Avoiding gluten may even be easier than you think. Grocery store shelves are stocked full of gluten-free products and substitutes for wheat products.
If going gluten-free doesn’t improve your fertility, choose a reproductive endocrinologist who understands your needs. Discuss treatment options with them. Many treatments are available and finding the right one can help you become a parent.