Singapore resident Colleen Francisca, 32, tried for six years to have a baby but was never able to conceive, not even with the help of assisted reproductive technologies (ART). She was diagnosed with “unexplained infertility” after no physical cause could be found for her inability to get pregnant; about 25% of all infertile patients share this diagnosis. Francisca couldn’t have a baby but she did have quite a sweet tooth.
Francisca’s love of dessert led her to open a dessert parlor of her own in 2012. About a year later, she experienced a frightening reaction after eating a pastry. According to Francisca, “I couldn’t breathe. My airway closed up on me and my face started to swell,” clear signs of anaphylactic shock, an allergic reaction that can be fatal.
A battery of tests followed and she was soon diagnosed as gluten intolerant. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and certain other grains. Most pastries are made from a wheat-flour base so Francisca had to stop eating the delicious desserts she sold at her shop.
Most breads, pastas, cereals, crackers, snack foods, and sweets such as cookies, cakes, brownies, pie, cinnamon rolls, and pancakes are made mostly of wheat flour. Barley and rye have naturally occurring gluten in them, too. Gluten as an isolated protein is often used as a “natural flavoring” in salad dressings, sauces, and many other commonly consumed processed foods.
Francisca could have none of these products or she faced physical discomforts that include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and joint pain. She was also at constant risk of the anaphylactic shock that prompted the diagnosis. Her diet changed radically.
Shortly thereafter, Francisca got pregnant.
Gluten intolerance can be experienced in varying degrees, the most serious of which is celiac disease. Gluten intolerance is an autoimmune disorder that targets the small intestine, preventing full absorption of the nutrients in the foods and beverages a patient consumes.
Sometimes the inability to process gluten is temporary and can be cleared up after a year or two on a gluten-free diet. Celiac disease is permanent and there is no cure. The most effective treatment is a gluten-free diet.
Malnutrition is a result of untreated gluten intolerance and it affects the entire body, including reproductive health. Dr. Loh Seong Feel has noticed a high rate of gluten intolerance in his patients with unexplained fertility at the Thomson Fertility Center, where he is Senior Consultant for Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Dr. Feel suggests the autoimmune response to gluten may affect fertility; missed periods and infertility are complications of celiac disease. He thinks it might prove beneficial to test for gluten intolerance when unexplained infertility is diagnosed.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women, especially those of Caucasian and European descent, are more often affected with gluten intolerance than men.