Can gluten cause infertility?

Dr. Jolene BrightenPublished: Last Reviewed: Fertility Leave a Comment

Can gluten cause infertility? It is a question on many women's minds… especially when they've tried everything to get pregnant.

There’s a lot to say about gluten and its effects on your health. Practitioners may recommend that you avoid gluten for a number of reasons – to lower systemic inflammation, increase cognitive function, or to help reduce the symptoms of conditions like autism, ADD, OCD, and depression.

But there’s another not often talked about reason to avoid gluten, even if you don’t suffer from any of the above ailments. If you’re having trouble conceiving, or if you’re looking to optimize your fertility, you may want to consider cutting gluten from your diet.

Gluten and infertility

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, bran, spelt, rye and other grains. Within gluten is a class of proteins known as alpha-gliadin that have the potential to trigger autoimmune celiac disease within the intestine—which occurs in approximately 1% of the population.

It’s estimated that about 3 million people in the U.S. alone suffer from celiac disease – and about 97% of them are undiagnosed.

Celiac disease often manifest with symptoms outside of the gut, such as osteoporosis, diabetes, thyroid disease, and neurological symptoms like migraines.

In fact, over 80% of people with celiac disease do not have digestion symptoms.

Many more people report reactions to gluten that can cause GI distress, IBS symptoms, chronic inflammation, headaches, brain fog, and more. This is known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and it’s even more prevalent than diagnosed celiac disease.

Leaving celiac disease untreated is dangerous for various reasons, including developing nutrient deficiencies, losing muscle and suffering from cognitive issues. It’s an inflammatory autoimmune condition rooted in the intestine that can ultimately cause cancer.

Plus, diagnosis of one autoimmune conditions means that you’re more likely to suffer from others, specifically Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, so a celiac diagnosis could save your life in more ways than one.

Celiac Disease and Infertility

Women with untreated celiac disease face higher rates of infertility and pregnancy complications, possibly related to immune mediated mechanisms or nutrient deficiencies.

This can result in miscarriages, higher rates of stillbirth, and problems with  intrauterine growth. In fact, findings suggest that all women experiencing unexplained fertility should be screened for the disease.

Because chronic inflammation, like that of celiac disease, can cause a wide array of hormonal symptoms, including PMS, short menstrual cycles (luteal phase defects), non-ovulatory cycles, acne, hair loss and other fertility hindering effects, I recommend that patients also have comprehensive hormonal testing.

Read my Guide to Hormone Balance and start investigating what your hormonal symptoms are telling you. In it, I provide tools to help you eliminate hormonal symptoms and start cycling regularly.

Male Fertility and Gluten

Men with undiagnosed/untreated celiac disease have higher rates of abnormal sperm and hormone dysregulation. In most cases, sperm structure and mobility were improved when these men adoption gluten free diets. Hormone levels also returned to normal.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

When it comes to NCGS, more research needs to be done on the link between gluten consumption and infertility. What we do know is that gluten intolerance causes inflammation to develop in the small intestine—the place where the majority of your nutrients are absorbed. 

When the lining of the small intestine is inflamed, damage occurs and it is no longer able to function at full capacity. The result? Nutrient deficiencies.

Iron, folate, selenium vitamin D and B12 tend to be lower in those with NCGS. These nutrients are essential when it comes to conceiving and carrying a healthy pregnancy to term.

gluten infertility fertility celiac

Gluten sensitivity and autoimmunity

Patients with autoimmune conditions often suffer from leaky gut. Gluten is known for its detrimental effects on the gut lining and is linked to leaky gut and autoimmune disease.

I recommended my patients avoid gluten if they have an autoimmune condition. 

How does gluten aggravate autoimmune disease?

Let's use the thyroid as an example…

In a mechanism called molecular mimicry, the gliadin protein in gluten closely resembles the thyroid gland, leading the gliadin antibodies to mistakenly attack the thyroid. So, your body’s response every time you eat gluten is to make antibodies to the gliadin molecule – antibodies that then attack your thyroid.

If you have Hashimoto’s, you are producing thyroid antibodies. If you have thyroid antibodies and are eating gluten, you are driving your body to attack your thyroid.

For more about why you should definitely avoid gluten if you have Hashimoto’s, check this out.

Gut Health and Fertility

What grows in your gut affects your nutrient absorption, influences inflammation in the body and determines the vaginal flora that will be passed along to your baby. Gluten can cause leaky gut, gut inflammation and create a less than ideal environment for the good gut bugs to grow!

Your gut health determines baby's overall health and has a role in your ability to become pregnant.

The organisms found in your vagina maintain an environment that allows for the survival of sperm. Whereas, the wrong kind of organisms can prevent conception by creating an unfriendly environment for sperm and can even lead to preterm birth in pregnant women. This is why I always address gut health as part of my approach to fertility and preconception care.

Taking a quality probiotic with Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus reuteri is one way to start improving your gut health.

Eating prebiotics foods like chicory, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichoke, leeks, jimica and garlic can given those good gut bugs some great fuel so they can grow and create a healthier gut. If you experience gas, bloating or digestive upset when you eat prebiotic foods I recommend being testing for SIBO. You can read more about SIBO in my article SIBO: What Is It and How Do I know If I Have It.

Improving your fertility

So, is it possible that something as seemingly harmless as a piece of bread is affecting your fertility? If you and your partner are suffering from unexplained infertility, I suggest you ask a qualified practitioner to test for celiac disease. And in the event those tests come back normal, try a gluten-free diet anyway for 3-6 months.

Here are the tests I recommend for Celiac Screening:

  • Tissue Transglutaminase Antibodies (tTG-IgA)
  • IgA Endoymsial antibody (EMA)
  • Total serum IgA
  • Deamidated gliadin peptide (DGP IgA and IgG)
  • Genetic testing: HLA DR3-DQ2 and DR4-DQ8 – 99% of those with celiac disease have either one or both of these genes.

A blood test for gluten IgG antibodies can also help you determine if you have Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. But in truth, the tests are not always accurate and removing gluten from the diet still remains the gold standard.

No one likes it when I say “try a gluten free diet.” And I get it. Many of our favorite foods (and delicious foods) contain gluten, which may have you thinking that sounds impossible. But in reality, 3-6 months is actually a pretty short period of time.

When you consider most couples try for 6 months before becoming pregnant, taking some time away from gluten isn't really that long.

But what if you are feeling that tick tock of your fertility clock?

I still recommend doing everything you can to create your best health before becoming pregnant. In my experience, women who do the work to optimize their body for conception tend to have easier pregnancies. Plus, you can't make a healthy baby without a healthy mama!

During your gluten free trial, I recommend taking the time to do a little “reset.” Reducing stress, eating for conception, beginning an exercise program, getting better sleep are just a few of the ways you can get your body into a state of excellent health and increase your likelihood of conceiving.

And this is a great opportunity for you to release the stress around getting pregnant from the bedroom and put a little more love into the love making. Call me crazy, but I think tracking ovulation, timing sex and watching pregnancy and ovulation sticks tends to add a little too much stress to our love life.

Take a break and reconnect with your partner on a deeper level.

Need more support?

Grab my Gluten Free Guide to get started on a gluten free diet.

And don't forget to download your free Hormone Starter Kit to learn more about how to improve your hormone health pre-baby!

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About The Author

Dr. Jolene Brighten

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Dr. Jolene Brighten, NMD, is a women’s hormone expert and prominent leader in women’s medicine. As a licensed naturopathic physician who is board certified in naturopathic endocrinology, she takes an integrative approach in her clinical practice. A fierce patient advocate and completely dedicated to uncovering the root cause of hormonal imbalances, Dr. Brighten empowers women worldwide to take control of their health and their hormones. She is the best selling author of Beyond the Pill and Healing Your Body Naturally After Childbirth. Dr. Brighten is an international speaker, clinical educator, medical advisor within the tech community, and considered a leading authority on women’s health. She is a member of the MindBodyGreen Collective and a faculty member for the American Academy of Anti Aging Medicine. Her work has been featured in the New York Post, Forbes, Cosmopolitan, Huffington Post, Bustle, The Guardian, Sports Illustrated, Elle, and ABC News. Read more about me here.