The short answer is yes. If you’re a woman with celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), gluten can have a significant impact on your hormones and fertility.
Even though the majority of people with celiac are women, the connection between women’s health issues and gluten is frequently overlooked.
Here’s what you need to know about how and why gluten-related disorders impact women’s hormonal balance, and what to do about it.
A Quick Primer on Gluten-Related Disorders:
Celiac is a genetic, autoimmune disease while NCGS is a food sensitivity. Even though they operate differently in the body, people with celiac and NCGS experience similar symptoms, including digestive issues, brain fog, joint pain, fatigue, headaches, skin issues, and mood imbalances, just to name a few! These disorders may also have similar effects on women’s hormones and fertility.
How Gluten-Related Disorders Affect Women:
Gluten-related disorders, when undiagnosed or unmanaged, have been shown to have an impact on women’s health in many ways. Research has shown that celiac can contribute to the following:
- Infertility – one of the most common complications
- Pregnancy complications – celiac women are four times more likely to have at least one complication during pregnancy such as miscarriage, preterm birth, and intrauterine growth restriction compared to non-celiac women.
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Amenorrhea – i.e. missing one or more periods
- Early menopause
While far fewer studies currently exist explicitly discussing the connection between NCGS and women’s health issues, it is highly likely that NCGS can drive similar fertility challenges.
This then begs the question: WHY do these complications occur? The following are four main reasons gluten can contribute to these hormonal imbalances.
Nutrient deficiencies are extremely common in celiacs, both at time of diagnosis and further down the line if patients have not received proper follow-up care. That’s because the autoimmune process causes damage directly to the small intestine, where nutrient absorption should normally occur!
Common deficiencies include vitamin D, vitamin K, B vitamins (especially B-12), iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium, and folate. All of these nutrients are extremely important for general hormonal production and pregnancy, both for mother and the development of a growing baby.
These deficiencies not only affect fertility, but can lead to other conditions such as iron deficiency anemia. Anemia is especially common for women who are menstruating and already losing large amounts of iron on a monthly basis.
Celiacs often struggle with fat malabsorption as well. Yet, healthy fats are essential building block of hormones and can improve menstrual cycles, especially when it comes to PMS, cramping, and regular ovulation.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in our neck critical for hormonal balance. It releases its own set of hormones and regulates many vital processes in the body, including metabolism, menstrual cycles, and even the growth and development of a baby’s brain in pregnancy. Nutrient deficiencies alone can make a big impact on the thyroid, but there are a few other ways gluten-related disorders can interfere.
The link between gluten and thyroid disorders is strong, particularly when it comes to autoimmune thyroid diseases like Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. In fact, celiac and Hashimoto’s share a similar genetic predisposition, meaning that people with celiac are four times more likely to have Hashimoto’s than the general population!
Gluten can also impair the thyroid through a process of molecular mimicry wherein the gluten protein looks similar to the thyroid tissue, causing your body to mistakenly attack both. Therefore, for some women, gluten can be problematic to the thyroid on multiple levels.
Whether you’re a woman planning to get pregnant or not, a robust thyroid is critical for health. If you’re struggling, make sure the practitioner you’re working with is using a complete thyroid panel in their assessment, not just TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone).
Inflammation is a hallmark of unmanaged celiac and NCGS. Inflammation is useful and necessary in acute instances, such as when we’re fighting off a cold or the flu, but when it becomes chronic, all other systems in our body are deprioritized.
The immune system becomes over-stimulated and sends the message to the body that it is in “fight or flight” mode, which triggers other processes to become dysregulated. This ultimately leads to even more inflammation!
Bottom line: if our body has to pour all its energy and resources into fighting a daily battle against inflammation, it has little bandwidth to worry about our fertility, and our hormones are put on the backburner.
Disruptions to the Gut Microbiome
Finally, disruptions in the gut microbiome and leaky gut (also known as intestinal permeability) underlie both NCGS and celiac disease. This can lead to further autoimmune diseases, thyroid dysfunction, and inflammatory conditions, including those that affect our hormones!
The strong relationship between gut health and female hormone balance means that anything negatively affecting the gut will also impact our hormones. On the bright side, this also means that removing gluten can go a long way in reducing the inflammation and “leakiness” of the gut, and help restore hormonal harmony.
What to Do:
The scientific literature makes it clear that gluten-related disorders can affect women’s hormonal balance and fertility from many angles, whether it be thyroid, nutrient status, inflammation, and/or the gut microbiome. The good news is that all of these complications can be avoided and resolved by figuring out if you have an issue with gluten and removing it from your diet.
The best first step is to test for gluten-related disorders ASAP, particularly if you are struggling with any unexplained women’s health issues and especially if you are planning to get pregnant.
Many people assume celiac disease always comes with digestive symptoms, but this is not always the case. In fact, some people never experience digestive issues or are completely asymptomatic. Unexplained infertility may be the first or only sign of celiac, which is why it is recommended that anyone having trouble getting pregnant get screened for celiac. If celiac testing is negative, it’s important to then consider NCGS. You can read more about proper testing for NCGS here.
Once women know if they have a gluten-related disorder, they can learn to completely eliminate gluten, reverse nutrient deficiencies, heal their gut, lower inflammation, and cultivate a rockin’ thyroid. This puts the body in a position where it can better focus on hormonal balance and, if growing a family is the goal, have a happy and healthy pregnancy!