Celiac Disease: Fertility’s Thief

in Celiac
Published: July 2, 2010

From the Allergic Living archives. FIrst published in the magazine in 2009.

Elisabeth Hasselbeck is used to getting what she goes for. “I came of the mentality that if you work hard for something, you have a good shot of getting it,” says the 32-year-old. She was chosen as a contestant on the second season of the reality TV show “Survivor”, which aired in 2001, and made it to the final four in the Australian Outback. She auditioned for Barbara Walters’ TV show “The View” in 2003 – and got the coveted job on the women’s panel. But when it came to starting a family, diligence wasn’t doing the trick. “And ‚Ķ we were working hard!” Hasselbeck tells Allergic Living with a laugh on the phone from New York.

While she’d figured out that her body didn’t tolerate gluten well, she had no idea that celiac disease was playing a role in preventing her from getting pregnant. The symptoms of celiac disease come in many forms, including: stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhea, chronic fatigue and anemia. But people with untreated celiac disease can also have vitamin deficiencies, migraines, bone and joint pain, depression, weight loss and, as was the case for Hasselbeck, trouble conceiving a child.

What’s alarming is that for some people, “infertility may be the only symptom of celiac disease,” says Dr. Ralph Warren, a gastroenterologist in Toronto. Many women, however, don’t get diagnosed with celiac disease until post-menopause, while others don’t find out at all. For those whose dream is to have a family it’s an unfortunate reality since, as Dr. Peter Green of The Celiac Disease Center in New York says: “It’s a treatable, reversible cause of infertility.”

The two years the Hasselbecks spent trying to conceive after they got married in 2002 were frustrating for Elisabeth. “This was supposed to be on my timeline, I was supposed to be pregnant by now,” she recalls thinking.

Hasselbeck knew she’d had longstanding health troubles, which began in 1997. There were the intense stomach cramps, periods of lethargy and her thyroid problem. She went to doctor after doctor and was diagnosed with stress and irritable bowel syndrome. But no treatment helped. Then after 39 days in the Outback eating almost nothing on “Survivor”, her symptoms miraculously went away.

After the show, it dawned on her: something she was eating must be causing the symptoms. Eventually, she zeroed in on gluten, and concluded she had celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the body reacts to gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley and rye. This leads to damage in the small intestine where the villi, small finger-like projections that absorb nutrients, are flattened. As she describes in her new book, The G Free Diet, despite eating, Hasselbeck had become malnourished.

She began eradicating gluten from her diet, the only way to treat celiac disease, and started to feel better. But the problem was, without a formal diagnosis, Hasselbeck would sometimes inadvertently eat gluten, since she hadn’t learned about all the hidden sources.

Next: Celiac Still Not on the Fertility Radar