Gluten sensitivity can affect women at any time throughout their lives. It often goes undiagnosed until later in life when symptoms become apparent or worsen. Research suggests there a link between gluten sensitivity and hormonal events in a woman's life such as menopause.
Gluten Sensitivity and Female Hormones
Untreated gluten sensitivity can affect female hormones, according to the Gluten Free Society. A 2012 study measured the effects of the most extreme form of gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, on hormones and found that it was an endocrine disrupter that affected multiple hormonal systems throughout the body. Hormonal conditions associated with gluten sensitivity include:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Thyroid disorders
- Addison's disease
- Higher risk of pregnancy complications
The Gluten Sensitivity-Menopause Connection
Research shows that untreated gluten intolerance may affect menopause.
Onset of Menopause
Multiple studies have found that untreated celiac disease shortened the lifespan of fertility in untreated women (that is, women who continued to consume gluten-containing foods.) In one study, From Menopause to Menarche, researchers found the control and study groups began menstruating at about the same time, but those with untreated celiac disease experienced menopause two to three years earlier than those without celiac disease.
Interestingly, diagnosed gluten-sensitive women who had undergone treatment (avoided consuming all gluten-containing foods) for 10 years before the study had longer periods of fertility than their untreated counterparts. This may be due in part to one of untreated celiac disease's effects - malnutrition due to malabsorption of nutrients.
While no evidence exists that menopause can cause gluten sensitivity, Core One Health notes that symptoms of untreated gluten sensitivity can sometimes mimic seasons of perimenopause, such as fatigue, irritability, joint pain, and brain fog.
Another way untreated gluten sensitivity leads to an amplification of menopausal symptoms, according to Dr. Vicki Petersen, is that it creates chronic stress on the adrenal glands. This leads to overproduction of the hormone cortisol, and eventually to adrenal exhaustion.
The adrenal gland is also responsible for production of pregnenolone, which is the precursor for production of many of the body's sex hormones. When the adrenal gland is busy producing cortisol to counteract the stress from gluten intake, it is unable to make as many of your important sex hormones as it should. The result is hormonal imbalances, which can cause or worsen perimenopausal symptoms. The longer gluten sensitivity goes untreated, the worse the hormonal imbalances and their attendant symptoms can become.
The National Osteoporosis Foundation notes that the risk of developing osteoporosis after menopause increases because the pace of bone reabsorption exceeds the rate of building new bone. Likewise, the CDC states osteoporosis is a complication strongly associated with celiac disease due to malabsorption of key nutrients such as calcium and magnesium.
For example, one one study showed that magnesium depletion related to malabsorption associated with gluten sensitivity was a factor in loss of bone density. Postmenopausal women with untreated gluten sensitivity may be at especially high risk of developing this condition.
Managing Menopause With Gluten Sensitivity
The single most important thing you can do if you have been diagnosed with or suspect any level of gluten sensitivity is to eat a gluten-free diet. As indicated in the study noted above, From Menopause to Menarche, women who had been on the gluten-free diet for 10 years had normal-onset menopause that was similar to their non-gluten sensitive counterparts.
In most cases, complete avoidance of gluten is necessary, because every time you consume gluten it stresses your body, causes inflammation, and further imbalances hormones. People with very severe gluten sensitivity may need to avoid personal care products that contain gluten, as well. Gluten may be present in cosmetics such as toothpaste, soap, makeup, and shampoo.
Talk to Your Doctor
If you suspect you have a gluten sensitivity and are struggling with the symptoms of menopause, talk with your doctor. He or she can test you for gluten sensitivity and help you manage any complications that arise.