When trying to conceive #1 (and only) I did some tin hat thinking. I define tin hat thinking as when you do something which you can see might be worth a try even though the hard scientific backing isn’t necessarily there. Things that can’t hurt to try and there seems to be loads of qualitative evidence on the internet though the quantitative evidence seems a bit lacking. You know the general sort of things – eating organic, not wearing perfume or cosmetics and perhaps eliminating dairy. They might be things that your naturopath prescribes, but what your fertility specialist doctor might say makes no difference. I realise this sounds quite dismissive to naturopaths and it is really not meant to. The more and more I research into fertility treatments the more and more I can see that sometimes some of the answers are in the way we live our lives rather than being solely dependent on how many units of Gonal F we are injecting into our stomach.
For me, eating a gluten free diet was one of those tin hat thinking moments. After several failed cycles I felt the need to attempt to take some control back and try something different. So amongst a couple of other things I tried eating gluten free diet starting from cycle day one. I did happen to get a BFP on the cycle I went gluten free, though I was also on some additional medication which also would have made an impact. Saying that though, I also know of others who have also experienced a BFP when eating gluten free (and there is that qualitative evidence again). But was it just coincidence and would it have been ‘our time’ regardless? Who knows. For a significant number of people though, particularly those with unexplained infertility, eating a gluten free diet may be much more than tin hat thinking and might just well be the real underlying cause of their infertility.
Celiac disease occurs in upto 1% of the population, but only 20- 50% of those may experience symptoms. As you are probably aware, traditionally people who have celiac disease are required to eat a gluten free diet. This is because celiac disease is an autoimmune condition which is triggered by gluten which is the protein fraction of wheat, barley and rye. There is a bit of a complex biochemistry reaction but essentially the gluten causes a number of chain reactions which results in an inflammatory response in the body and the production of some specific antibodies. It is perhaps the presence of these antibodies that may contribute to difficulty conceiving, recurrent miscarriages and once you are finally pregnant with one that sticks, intrauterine growth restriction, which can result in your baby being born with a significantly lower birth weight and other difficulties.
The evidence for associating gluten with infertility
There has been a bit of research around celiac disease and just last year a meta-analyisis was completed investigating the association between celiac disease and issues of the reproductive system in women (Tersigni, 2014). The meta-analysis included 24 studies that had been completed on this area and here are what I consider the five essential things to know:
1. Women with unexplained infertility or recurrent miscarriage have a 5 or 6 fold, respectively, increased risk of being affected from celiac disease compared with the general population.
2. Classic celiac symptoms are often absent, or at most the symptom may be the very general fatigue associated with iron deficiency anaemia. This means that it can be a significant length of time before diagnosis, and hence treatment is initiated.
3. Before and after studies have been done on women with celiac disease and the number of children they were able to have before and after diagnosis. Before diagnosis women with celiac disease were found to have less numbers of children than women without celiac disease. After diagnosis and treatment this number returned to similar numbers. This indicates that treatment of celiac disease and eating a gluten free diet is beneficial to aiding fertility in women with celiac disease and seemingly reverses the destructive mechanisms.
4. There are two suggested mechanisms by which celiac disease limits fertility: firstly causing malabsorption and nutrient deficiency and secondly, the accompanying automimmune reactions.
It is believed by preventing the absorption of nutrients an imbalance in the reproductive hormones such as luteinising hormone and follicle stimulating hormone is experienced. This in turn prevents normal ovarian functioning and hence causes infertility. Deficiency of nutrients such as folic acid also ultimately leads destruction of the rapidly growing embryo as it needs this acid to develop neurons and develop normally.
The second mechanism being autoimmune factors effects fertility in two ways. One possible way is that the antibodies produced by women with celiac disease destroy the outer layer of the blastocyst. This prevents the embryo from implantation and forming the placenta as it is this outer layer of the blastocyst that gives rise to the developing placenta. Another possible way is that the antibodies prevent the endometrium from growing new blood vessels, again preventing implantation resulting in a BFN once again.
5. Women with celiac disease also show an increased risk of miscarriage, intra-uterine growth restriction, low birth weight and preterm delivery. This indicates that the implications for having celiac disease go far beyond difficulties at conception and that a long term gluten free is essential in women with celiac disease who achieve preganancy.
Especially if you have ‘unexplained’ infertility or recurrent miscarriage, at your next appointment ask your doctor if you have been screened for a sensitivity to gluten. The symptoms are not always the typical responses and can easily be missed. One of the first screens to do is to test for endomysial and anti-TG antibodies (Tersigni, 2014)
Check out the possibility of eating a gluten free diet. Although on the one hand it has never been easier to knowingly eat gluten free – there is pretty much a gluten free substitute for EVERYTHING these days, on the other hand it is nearly impossible to cut out all the hidden gluten – it sometimes seems gluten is everywhere… there is wheat syrup and hence gluten in that Cadbury’s chocolate bar you have just eaten!
If you are just starting out to eat gluten free the big things to avoid are foods containing wheat. That includes pretty much all cereals, baked goods, bread, cakes, pastry, noodles and pasta. Vegetables, fruit and meat are fine as is rice and some other non-wheat grains. Like I said though, the ‘hidden’ gluten is in a lot of things including salad dressings, soups and beer. If you are serious about going gluten free it is therefore essential to check the back of the pack before eating.
As for me, although I did decide to stop eating gluten I have not yet been tested for the specific antibodies that often present with a gluten sensitivity. I will request these at my next appointment but in the mean time I found it ‘worthwhile’ eating gluten free if for no other reason than knowing that I had given things my ‘best shot’. Anyway, as previously discussed, for a significant number of women with infertility the idea of eating a gluten free diet is perhaps based in science and not so ‘tin hat’ as what I first thought.
Tersigni, C., Castellani, R., deWaure, C., Fattorossi, A., De Spirito, M., Gasbarrini, A., Scambia, G. & Di Simone, N. (2014) Celiac disease and reproductive disorders: meta-analysis of epidemiologic associations and potential pathogenic mechanisms. Human Reproduction Update. 20 (4) 582–593