Celiac Disease, Early Menopause and Osteoporosis

The Many Faces of Celiac Disease

Until recently, celiac disease was something we hardly heard about. However, over the past several years this disease has come more to the forefront, especially since it impacts so many areas of a woman’s life. Celiac disease can cause a woman to experience early menopause, or have amenorrhea, which ends up being mistaken for early menopause. Studies have shown that women with celiac disease, especially if it is undiagnosed, often go through menopause as early as their mid-30s. One reason celiac disease may contribute to early menopause is because the malnutrition that results from malabsorption of nutrients in colon of women with the disease. This malabsorption is also a key in the connection between celiac disease and osteoporosis, which often appears at the same time.

More Common Than Ever Thought

Celiac disease is an autoimmune digestive disease that stops the body from properly digesting gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. It is more far-flung than one would think, with an estimated ratio of one in 133 Americans suffering with it and an additional 30 million with the precursor to it, sub-clinical gluten intolerance. A lot of people are dealing with this difficult-to-diagnose problem and the results are showing up in myriad ways. It has taken about 11 years to diagnose in most cases, but with the prevalence of it in American society, more doctors are doing the necessary tests to determine if their patients have celiac disease. The high number of people, especially post-menopausal women, who suffer with the effects of celiac disease in the form of osteoporosis, is alarming.

Osteoporosis – What it is

Osteoporosis is a condition in which bone density is abnormal, much lower than it should be. Decreased bone density means breaks are much more likely to happen because the bone is very fragile. The word itself gives us a clue as to the condition of the bone with this disease. Osteo is Latin for bone and porosis, as it sounds, means having porosity or being spongy. A condition related to osteoporosis, but not as serious is osteopenia – low bone density but not as low as with osteoporosis. Often people discover they have the disease after a break occurs or after an accumulation of tiny breaks create enough pain and discomfort to motivate intervention.

Risk Factors for Osteoporosis

One of the primary risk factors for osteoporosis is a lack of calcium intake. This statement is often found in bold print on any literature you read about osteoporosis. It also happens to be one of the primary issues for people with celiac disease. Other risk factors include not enough vitamin D, being thin or having a small frame, family history of osteoporosis, medications like glucocorticoids, smoking, drinking too much alcohol, not engaging in enough weight-bearing exercise, and in women, being post-menopausal, having an early menopause, or not having periods any longer.

The Celiac Connection

The factor that puts women with celiac disease at higher risk for osteoporosis is that when they eat foods that have gluten in them, the villi that line the small intestine become damaged, restricting the intake of nutrition by the colon. Some of the nutrients that slip through the colon without being absorbed are calcium, vitamin D and vitamin K – all essential for healthy bone growth. Consequently, low bone density is a hallmark of celiac disease with the risk for osteoporosis being especially high in adults who have never been diagnosed with the disease.

The connection between celiac disease and osteoporosis is so strong that researchers suggest all people who develop osteoporosis at a young age be tested for celiac disease in order to determine if their condition is linked to malabsorption. Sometimes the only clue a woman has that she has celiac disease is that she is afflicted with osteoporosis.

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