Gluten Can Make Your Period Miserable

Those Painful Cramps? Headaches? Heavy Bleeding? Could Be Gluten

Is gluten making your menstrual cramps worse?
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Can celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity cause severe menstrual cramps and just generally make your period a miserable experience? Possibly. Although there are no published medical studies looking specifically at severe menstrual cramps in women with the undiagnosed celiac disease, numerous studies link menstrual and reproductive problems with celiac disease.

Many Celiac Women Report Painful Periods

Dysmenorrhea technically means severe menstrual cramps, and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) notes that these cramps can last one or two days per cycle.

According to ACOG, these cramps may be caused by prostaglandins, which are chemicals made by the uterus that causes uterine contractions.

The cramps, which seem to occur most frequently on the first day of a woman's period, can be so painful that some teenagers and women vomit or pass out. In some cases, extremely heavy menstrual bleeding accompanies the cramps.

There's little research on the incidence of this type of menstrual pain in women with celiac disease. A major Italian study on reproductive issues in women with celiac disease found that nearly half of women with celiac reported suffering from dysmenorrhea prior to diagnosis. However, about 32 percent of non-celiac women serving as control subjects in that study also reported severe menstrual cramps.

The authors noted that celiac women who follow a gluten-free diet appear to avoid many pregnancy problems found commonly in women with celiac disease.

The study did not consider whether following a gluten-free diet could improve severe menstrual cramps in women with celiac disease. However, the authors wrote that their results "seem to substantiate a possible relation between the two."

Women Link Gluten and Painful Periods

Anecdotally, there are many accounts of women who suffered from extremely painful menstrual cramps that improved or disappeared once they were diagnosed with celiac disease and started eating gluten-free.

In fact, some naturopathic physicians have begun suggesting gluten-free diet trials to women who complain of extremely painful periods. However, it should be noted that there is not yet extensive research supporting this. Anecdotal reports from women who are celiac or gluten-sensitive say their severe menstrual cramps improved or even disappeared completely once they began eating gluten-free.

How Could Gluten Worsen Menstrual Cramps?

It isn't yet known why having an issue with the protein gluten might throw a wrench into your reproductive works. However, it's possible that chronic inflammation may play a role.

In fact, some women who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity also report that their periods are much worse—more painful, with cramps and abdominal pain lasting longer than usual, as well—if they've had gluten recently, especially if the episode was particularly bad.

Endometriosis Also Potentially Linked with Celiac Disease

Endometriosis, a condition in which uterine cells grow outside the uterus, also causes chronic pelvic pain. It also can cause heavy menstrual bleeding, pain during sexual intercourse, and even sleep disturbances. However, in some cases, endometriosis does not have any obvious symptoms at all, and it's often discovered during testing for infertility.

Again, there's little medical research on potential links between celiac disease and endometriosis, but the research that does exist, and anecdotal reports from women with celiac disease, indicate that endometriosis may be more common in celiac women than it is in the general population.

Study: Celiac Four Times More Common in Women with Endometriosis

In a study conducted in 2009, researchers sought to determine the incidence of celiac disease in a population of infertile women who had been diagnosed with endometriosis. They compared 120 women whose endometriosis diagnosis had been confirmed by laparoscopy with 1,500 healthy women.

In the study, both groups were tested for celiac disease with celiac disease blood tests that included both screening for anti-tissue transglutaminase (tTG-IgA) and a screen for anti-endomysium (anti-EMA) antibodies. The EMA-IgA test is considered the most specific for celiac disease.

Nine of the 120 women in the study group were positive on the tTG-IgA test, and five of them also turned up positive on the EMA-IgA test. Of these five, four agreed to an intestinal biopsy, which confirmed celiac disease in three cases (a 2.5 percent prevalence).

Meanwhile, in the control group, the researchers found celiac disease in one out of every 136 women, for an incidence rate of 0.66 percent. The researchers concluded that celiac disease appears commonly in women with endometriosis, "and may be clinically relevant."

A Word From Verywell

Research is lacking in the area of the influence of gluten sensitivity on menstrual cramps. Having severe menstrual cramps is a problem you should discuss with your doctor, as it may be a sign of a condition such as endometriosis or fibroids.

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