Going gluten-free isn’t exactly what it used to be.
Whereas limited restaurant menu options and strange looks from wait staff – not to mention a whole host of questions during family dinners – used to be par for the course for men and women who chose, either out of necessity or personal choice, to go gluten-free, things have drastically changed.
Nowadays, it’s not hard to find a restaurant with plenty of gluten-free options, friends and acquaintances making the same food choices as you, and plenty of information on the benefits of going gluten-free, especially for women due to a possible link with increased fertility.
This begs the question – if you’re a young woman who is not already gluten-free, should you be? Is it good for you? And most importantly, what on earth can you eat? As it turns out, you can eat plenty – and plenty of carbs, too, if that’s your worry.
Let’s dig in, shall we?
So gluten-free is good for you?
Yes. Here’s the main takeaway: recent research has shown that switching to a gluten-free diet could be a very good thing. Over the past several years, researchers have made a credible link between our health and gluten intolerance. Most notably, this research has suggested that by switching to a gluten-free diet, we are likely to benefit our digestion, mental health, and reproductive health (i.e., fertility).
What is gluten, anyway, and how common is it?
Gluten is a protein that is present in many grains such as wheat, barley, and rye – and ends up in large quantities in bread, pasta, pizza, cereal, and beer, to name a few. It acts as the binding agent that helps foods maintain their shape. People diagnosed with Celiac disease have an autoimmune condition that prevents them from breaking down this protein, causing their small intestine to attack itself.
It was often thought that gluten intolerance could not be anything other than celiac disease, but this is not the case. In fact, researchers in gastrointestinal health have found that a Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) exists in many seemingly “healthy” women. According to the University of Maryland’s Celiac Research Center, at least 6% of the U.S. population has gluten insensitivity in one form or another.
By eliminating gluten from your diet, you may notice changes in your general well-being, ranging from improved digestion to a calmer and happier state of mind.
Below are a few health areas impacted by gluten.
Digestion and inflammation
If you, like so many women out there, suffer from digestive issues such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), eliminating gluten from your diet may be a wise starting point to support your gut health. Women who have given this a shot noted that a gluten-free diet significantly reduced symptoms, including stomach upset, constipation and diarrhea, bloating, gas and cramping.
Much of the pain associated with digestive issues and IBS is caused by inflammation as your body desperately tries to fight off this protein attacking the digestive system. But this inflammation is not always contained to the abdomen. Gluten intolerance can cause inflammation in other body tissues, too – someone who has a gluten sensitivity may have noticed this in the form of joint pain, muscle cramping, numbness in your limbs, and even skin concerns such as worsening acne or eczema. Try testing out a gluten-free diet and notice if any of these symptoms improve.
If you suspect yourself to be sensitive to gluten and often feel fatigued, wiped out, or struggling to find the energy you need to complete simple tasks, consider gluten as a likely potential culprit. With gluten intolerance, your body is likely not digesting or absorbing all the vitamins and minerals from your diet. Your body is in full defense mode, diverting all your precious energy to tackle this unwanted protein. Malabsorption in the intestine can leave you lacking the essential minerals you need to feel strong and energized to tackle the day ahead.
It’s no secret that there is a direct correlation between gut health and mental health, and as it turns out, eliminating gluten from your diet could be a pathway to improved mood, memory, and overall state of mind. Inflammation in the gut occurs when cytokines (an inflammatory molecule) are released to fight the gluten protein. However, these cytokines can frequently affect healthy brain function over time, completely scrambling our natural chemical levels and neurological signaling. While it is important to remember that mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety are not caused by gluten, many women diagnosed with these disorders have noted their symptoms ease significantly when their gut health improves.
Links between gluten intolerance and fertility
All of the benefits listed above are steadily being taken more seriously thanks to increased gluten sensitivity research. As much of this research has been conducted on young women, another considerable study area is being explored on gluten intolerance and reproductive health. While most of these findings point to a modest, limited link, results have indeed pointed to a link. A correlation was found between celiac women who have experienced menstruation disorders, unexplained infertility, recurrent miscarriages, and intrauterine growth issues with their babies. One 2016 review showed that up to 50% of women with untreated celiac disease report having had at least one poor pregnancy outcome. Yet, many of these women remain undiagnosed with celiac or non-celiac gluten intolerance, potentially leading to the silent deterioration of their reproductive health.
Altered estrogen levels
While most women don’t experience imbalanced estrogen levels until menopause, gluten intolerance may be a reason some women experience these imbalances earlier in life. Estrogen, also known as the sex hormone, is a hormone in our bodies that encourages women’s normal sexual and reproductive development. Produced by the ovaries, any imbalance in estrogen can have consequences on everything from puberty, to fertility, to menopause, to our sex drive.
Amenorrhea and Diminished Ovarian Reserve (DOR)
An estrogen imbalance can be problematic for women’s reproductive health, whether trying to conceive or not. Amenorrhea is when women have very light or no periods at all, a condition that can be caused by Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). PCOS has been studied in relation to low-carb and low-glycemic index diets. Although there is no undeniable connection between PCOS and gluten intolerance, there is one between gluten intolerance and diabetes. A 2018 Danish study showed that as women consumed more gluten throughout their pregnancy, their child’s risk of developing type 1 diabetes increased.
Carb overload is also a primary reason women develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy. The diagnosis results from a combination of factors, from genetic predisposition to a carb-heavy diet before pregnancy, to a carb-heavy diet during pregnancy, to a lack of exercise, to the role of the placenta in causing insulin resistance that leads to high blood sugar during pregnancy.
It’s important to note that carbs are not synonymous with gluten, and women on a gluten-free diet can still overconsume carbs and develop diabetes, gestational or not. Carb intake should be limited for all people and balanced with protein and healthy fat intake for optimal blood sugar management. However, it is nice to know that if you choose to go gluten-free, it doesn’t mean you’re giving up starchy and grainy carbs entirely – you can still consume, in moderation, potatoes, oatmeal, quinoa, rice, and more.
In terms of egg reserve, our ovaries hold a finite resource. Unlike male fertility, there is, unfortunately, a metaphorical clock counting down on our supply of ovum. When we are hormonally balanced, our body works to both slow down this reduction and preserve our ovarian reserve. Some research has found that reproductive-age women with celiac disease have a smaller ovarian reserve than those who don’t have a gluten sensitivity. Not only this, but research showed that the reserve decreased further the longer these women lived with the disease. Some women have been trying to start their families for years and, after switching to gluten-free diets, were able to conceive both naturally and through In Vitro Fertilization (IVF).
Even if you are not trying to conceive, protecting your fertility may be important to you. For women who donate their eggs or become gestational surrogates to carry another woman’s baby, reproductive health is vital. And even if you don’t plan on doing that and never want to have children, hormonal health impacts a plethora of other bodily functions, making the balance of all your internal systems a must.
Whether you’re sold on the health benefits of going gluten-free or not, you can be certain there’s no harm in it, especially if you’re experiencing any negative symptoms mentioned in this blog. The worst that can happen is you don’t see a change and go back to your old diet. But the best that can happen is you see a complete transformation of your reproductive system, mood, digestive health, and skin. It could be a total game-changer!
Still not sure? Here are a few mouth-watering gluten-free recipes to whet your appetite:
Gluten-Free Spring Chicken Salad – this delicious, nutritious chicken salad includes spinach, feta cheese, fruit, and bacon. It’s perfect for satisfying flavor cravings and is gluten, nut, soy, and corn-free!
Minestrone Soup with Meatballs – nothing says “spring” like a delicious minestrone soup. The combination of fresh garden veggies and gluten-free meatballs will transport you to that happy place.
Gluten-Free Ratatouille Pasta – if you think pasta is out of the question on a gluten-free diet, think again – this yummy, veggie-packed brown rice pasta recipe is sure to satisfy your pasta craving without sacrificing your health, especially due to the fiber in the brown pasta!