Is gluten sensitivity causing your infertility?


Utica Park Clinic OB/GYN Corey Babb, D.O., joins us on the blog today to talk about the link between a gluten sensitivity and problems getting pregnant.
One of the hottest topics in healthcare today is gluten sensitivity.  Approximately 40 percent of Americans experience a wide array of symptoms including abdominal discomfort, gas, bloating and even muscle or joint aches when they eat products that contain wheat, spelt, barley or rye.   Previous scientific studies have demonstrated possible connections between gluten sensitivity and multiple conditions including diabetes, ADHD, and depression, just to name a few.  Additionally, recent research has also shown a plausible link between gluten sensitivity and infertility.  But how does what you eat affect your ability to conceive?  To answer that question, we need to first examine what gluten is, and how it can affect the body of someone with gluten sensitivity.  
Gluten is a binding protein that helps glue carbohydrates together.  In people without gluten sensitivity, the body does a wonderful job of breaking down the gluten, and moving it through the digestive tract.  With gluten sensitivity, however, the body mounts an immune response to the gluten itself, which causes inflammation, irritation and possible tissue breakdown along the digestive tract.  As a byproduct of the immune reaction, the body secretes inflammatory chemicals that can cause swelling and tenderness in the skin and joints.  Given enough time the body will repair the damage caused by the inflammatory reaction.  Unfortunately, that process can take up to six months, so dietary changes are by no means a quick fix.  As women age, their chance of naturally conceiving drops, so a six month time period can become an eternity, especially as the diagnosis of infertility looms.  
Infertility is defined as the inability to conceive after one year of timed, unprotected intercourse.  It is a condition that affects approximately 10 percent of American couples, and is one of the most difficult conditions for OB/GYNs to treat.  The cause of infertility can be attributed to either male factor (sperm problems), female factor (issues with ovulation or implantation of the embryo into the uterus), or a combination of both.  In order for pregnancy to occur, numerous conditions must happen at exactly the right time.  Ample nutrients must be present in the mother’s circulation to allow the embryo to grow and the uterus must be in a “receptive state” to allow implantation to occur.  If either of these factors are not present, conception and pregnancy becomes extremely difficult.  
If a woman with gluten sensitivity is constantly consuming gluten-containing meals she is effectively putting herself in a chronic inflammatory state.  This can counteract the “receptive state” the uterus requires to allow a new pregnancy to implant.  Likewise, chronic inflammation in the digestive tract can lead to malabsorption of food, therefore decreasing the flow of essential nutrients to the growing embryo.  Although it would be very difficult to diagnose infertility based off of nutritional deficiencies alone, there is a significant correlation between nourishment and conception: the healthier you are, the easier it is to become pregnant.
Obviously, this is a brief overview of the potential interactions between gluten and fertility.  If you feel that you are suffering from the above symptoms, including difficulty with conception, you should talk to your healthcare provider.  As more research surfaces concerning gluten sensitivity, more treatments will become available for women (and men!) to deal with this potentially life-changing condition.  There are numerous resources on the internet or at your local hospital that can help individuals cope with gluten sensitivity.  Ask questions, seek answers, and take charge of your own health.