Going Gluten-Free to Get Pregnant? Here's What You Need to Know

What to Do Before You Give Up Gluten, How to Do It Right

Tray of gluten free pastries which may not be fertility friendly choices
Gluten-free doesn't automatically mean healthy. Be sure to make fertility friendly choices after your diet change. JPM / Image Source / Getty Images

So, you’re thinking of going gluten-free in hopes it’ll help you get pregnant. Maybe your doctor has recommended trying a gluten-free diet. Maybe you’ve read the (little) research there is on gluten and infertility and decided it’s worth a try. Maybe you just received a diagnosis of celiac disease.

Whatever the reason, before you start that gluten-free diet, you need to consider these four pieces of advice.

Don’t Push Off Fertility Testing

You might be tempted to give a gluten-free diet a try first, and then, if you still can’t get pregnant, see your doctor.

Please don’t do that.

Even if you’re not sure you want to do fertility treatments, even if you prefer to try alternative or natural treatments first, you should get you and your partner tested.

The recommendation is to be seen for a fertility evaluation if you’ve been trying to conceive for a year (or six months, if you’re 35 years or older.)

Why? Because some causes of infertility worsen with time, and some will not be helped with diet alone, no matter what you do.

For example, age-related infertility or premature ovarian failure (which can happen in your 20s) is something you cannot wait to treat. You don’t have time. Without testing, though, you won’t know if this is what you’re facing.

Then, there are fertility problems like blocked fallopian tubes or azoospermia (that is a zero sperm count.) Diet is not going to be enough in those cases.

After you’ve had basic testing, if your doctor thinks you have time to try more natural approaches first, then you can go ahead with the gluten-free diet and push off fertility treatments until later.

You might also decide to go gluten-free and pursue fertility treatments. Remember that according to the research (the very little we have right now), going gluten-free is usually not enough.

Many couples need treatments on top of diet change.

Get Tested for Celiac or Gluten Intolerance Now

The first step in testing for celiac disease is having a blood test. Depending on the results and your symptoms, the next step is an endoscopy. (This involves putting a tube down your throat and through your stomach, to get a biopsy from the top of your small intestine.)

However, these tests will not be accurate if you’ve been on a gluten-free diet for any length of time.

The blood work is looking for your body’s immune reaction to gluten. The endoscopy is looking for damage to your small intestines caused by gluten exposure.

If you’ve been off gluten, the results may not show these reactions.

Gluten sensitivity testing is a more controversial subject. Not everyone agrees on the accuracy of the tests currently available.

However, if you want the testing, you should do so before starting the gluten-free diet.

Just like the celiac testing.

Why does it matter if you get tested or not?

Well, if you really are celiac, then going back on gluten later would be a serious mistake.

You might as well go into this knowing whether you need to go gluten-free for life or if you have more flexibility in your long-term diet plans.

Another good reason to get tested for celiac is it may provide answers to your fertility problems.

Especially if your case is considered “unexplained”, or if you have other celiac symptoms, getting tested before you start the diet is the smart thing to do.

Make Sure You’re Getting Enough B-Vitamins and Folic Acid

It’s absolutely essential that you make sure you’re getting enough folic acid and B-vitamins when you’re on a gluten-free diet.

Folic acid intake has been shown to reduce the risk of neural tube defects. These include birth defects like spina bifida (which is when the spinal cord doesn’t develop properly), anencephaly (which involves babies missing parts of their brain, scalp, and skull), and encephalocele (which involves parts of the brain pressing out from the skull.)

Many breads and cereals are fortified with folic acid to ensure women of childbearing age get enough of these vitamins, hopefully reducing the rate of birth defects.

However, not all gluten-free breads and cereals are fortified in the same way. Many aren’t fortified at all.

The very best thing to do is take a prenatal vitamin (perhaps without iron) or talk to your doctor about the best supplement to take. This is a good idea for those who aren’t on a gluten-free diet, too.

The need for folic acid applies to men as well. It has been shown to improve semen health. So, if your partner is going gluten-free as well, he might want to take a supplement as well.

Eat Whole Read Foods and Avoid the Sugary Gluten-Free Products

A gluten-free diet doesn’t automatically mean a healthy diet.

This is true for many diets. Veganism, for example, sounds like a healthy way to eat, but it’s possible to eat a very unhealthy vegan diet. Same goes for gluten-free.

While we don’t know if going gluten-free will improve your fertility (unless you have celiac disease), we do know that an unhealthy diet can harm fertility.

Fiber has been shown to be an important part of a fertility-friendly diet. On a gluten-free diet, you can get your fiber from eating plenty of veggies, beans, seeds, and fruit.

You want to avoid foods that spike your blood sugar. These include sweets, of course, but they may also include many gluten-free “bread” and pastries.  

A gluten-free bagel is rarely a healthy choice. You’re better off eating non-gluten carbs like brown rice or baked sweet potato than gluten-free replacement products.

Many gluten-free products are low in fiber and high in sugar. This isn’t good for you.

Consider meeting with a dietitian or nutritionist. They can help you rethink your diet as you go gluten-free and help you see how to make healthy choices.

More on fertility and diet:

Sources:

Crider KS1, Bailey LB, Berry RJ. “Folic acid food fortification-its history, effect, concerns, and future directions.” Nutrients. 2011 Mar;3(3):370-84. doi: 10.3390/nu3030370. Epub 2011 Mar 15. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257747/

Neural tube defects. March of Dimes. Accessed on November 27, 2015. http://www.marchofdimes.org/complications/neural-tube-defects.aspx

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