Celiac disease can cause early menopause (known in medical circles as “premature menopause”). To understand what may happen in women with celiac disease, it helps to know what’s considered “normal.”
Menopause, which as I’m sure you know means the end of your reproductive years, is defined as being without a period for 12 months. So if you have your last period when you’ve just turned 50 (the average age), then you’re “in menopause” when you turn 51 years old.
So-called “normal” menopause normally occurs between the ages of 45 and 55. Menopause is considered “early” if it occurs in a woman before she turns age 45, and “premature” if it occurs before age 40.
How Does Having Celiac Disease Affect Menopause?
Numerous medical studies have found that women with celiac disease — especially undiagnosed celiac disease, where the women aren’t following the gluten-free diet — often go through menopause very, very early, sometimes even as soon as their mid-30s.
For example, I once spoke with a woman who had been diagnosed with “premature menopause” when she was around age 33. Unfortunately, she wasn’t diagnosed with celiac disease until several years later.
Early Menopause and Fertility
Obviously, if you go through menopause much too early, it has a major impact on fertility. Sadly, the woman I knew who hit menopause at age 33 had wanted children but wasn’t able to conceive them.
Medical literature indicates that women with celiac disease that isn’t diagnosed until later (or who were diagnosed earlier but who cheat on the gluten-free diet) have what’s referred to as a “shorter fertile lifespan,” in part because they go through menopause so early, and in part because celiac women tend to get their first periods later. The amount of time they can get pregnant is shortened by years.
On the other hand, one study indicates that women with celiac who had been gluten-free long-term (for a decade or longer) tended to have a longer “fertile lifespan” than those who weren’t diagnosed until later.
Health Issues Linked to Early Menopause
Women with undiagnosed celiac disease and diagnosed celiacs who aren’t gluten-free have a harder time as they go through perimenopause and enter menopause: one study shows they have much worse hot flashes, muscle and joint problems, and irritability.
Meanwhile, women who go through menopause early or prematurely have a higher risk of osteoporosis, which also has been linked to celiac disease. It’s possible that the malnutrition resulting from the malabsorption of nutrients in untreated celiac disease may cause both early menopause and osteoporosis.
Celiac disease also can cause skipped periods, which might be mistaken for early menopause in some cases. Many women who thought they had gone through an early or premature menopause have gotten their periods back after being diagnosed with celiac disease and adopting a gluten-free diet. Some even have become pregnant (celiac disease also is associated with infertility).