Women with undiagnosed and untreated celiac disease may experience a shorter "reproductive window" than women without the allergy to gluten-containing foods, due to an earlier onset of menopause and an increased risk for certain pregnancy complications, according to research from Italy. To learn more about the connection between celiac and fertility, researchers looked at a group of 100 women who had already gone through menopause. Some had been diagnosed with celiac disease and followed a gluten-free diet for at least 10 years before menopause. Another 33 had celiac disease that wasn't diagnosed until after menopause, and 45 celiac-free women served as a comparison group, Reuters Health reports.
Whether or not they had celiac disease, all women in the study indicated that they had begun menstruating at age 12 or 13. Both women without celiac disease and those who had followed a gluten-free diet hit menopause around age 50, but women with untreated celiac disease went through menopause between age 47 and 48, making their "fertile life span" shorter than other women's. Researchers also noted that while all three groups of women had gotten pregnant an average of two to three times, women with untreated celiac were more likely to experience miscarriage and premature birth.
The good news to come out of this study? It was clear that when women with celiac disease were diagnosed earlier on in their childbearing years and followed a gluten-free diet, their chances for having a healthy pregnancy—and normal reproductive lifespan—increased dramatically.
"It's very interesting that when this disease is diagnosed early and corrected by a gluten-free diet, you find that these people improved significantly and their reproductive function improved significantly," says Dr. Shawky Badawy, the head of obstetrics and gynecology at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, via Reuters Health.
Celiac disease affects approximately 1 percent of Americans, according to Reuters Health. In people with the disease, the immune system reacts to a protein called gluten, which is found in foods containing wheat, barley, and rye. Eating foods with gluten damages the small intestine and keeps it from absorbing nutrients. As researchers explain, nutrient deficiencies, plus lower levels of some key hormones, may lead to disrupted fertility in some women with celiac disease.
"When people have celiac disease, they have really chronic diarrhea, for example," Dr. Badawy says. "With this, they lose much of the necessary amino acids, vitamins, (and) minerals, and all these certainly have their importance in the function of the vital endocrine organs."
Could you have celiac disease? "There are big signs" of celiac disease, study lead researcher Dr. Carolina Ciacci from Federico II University of Naples, Italy, tells Reuters Health. "One is anemia, or iron deficiency. If you couple that with gastrointestinal symptoms or with fatigue ... you must tell a doctor: check for celiac disease."