Hormone Imbalance & Gluten: More About the Connection
Hormone imbalance and gluten, by Dr. Vikki Petersen. An article published in Gluten Free & More — Hormones are messengers that act within your brain as well as between your brain and your body. Your endocrine system works in concert with the pituitary gland in your brain, which in turn secretes factors into the bloodstream, which act on a variety of glands in your body to either increase or decrease hormone production. In a healthy body, there is a natural ebb and flow of hormonal levels depending on what is occurring. A woman’s menstrual cycle is a perfect example of this.
Some of these glands are your thyroid, reproductive organs, heart, kidneys, adrenal glands, pancreas, thymus, parathyroid, and to some degree, body fat. As you can see, hormone production involves almost all organs.
You may think of hormonal function as it associates with reproduction and mood, but hormones have a broad impact on many functions of your body.
Sex hormone imbalance can create common symptoms such as:
- Painful or irregular periods
- Mood swings and irritability
- Weight gain
- PMS and PCOS
- Anxiety and depression
- Infertility or frequent miscarriage
- Low libido
- Headache and migraine
- Hot flashes
- Acne or dry skin
- Brain fog or poor memory
- Hair loss
- Constipation or diarrhea
Please remember “common” does not mean “normal.”
Additional body functions related to hormonal imbalance are too numerous to completely list, but to give you some idea of what is affected by hormones, here’s an additional list.
- Heart rate – too slow or too fast
- Metabolic rate – how fast or slow you burn calories, this affects weight and blood sugar levels
- Digestive function
- Inflammatory response
- Bone maintenance – bone weakening can result
- Blood pressure – too high or too low
- Muscle integrity – strength or weakness due to imbalance
- Eye health – irritation can result
- Body temperature control – heat or cold sensitivity
- Voice quality – hoarseness can result
Gluten is certainly not the only factor affecting hormonal balance. Stress levels, certain diseases, environmental toxins, and drugs can all affect your hormones. But diet and nutrition, including reactions to gluten, are highly overlooked, especially by conventional medicine.
How does having celiac disease or gluten sensitivity predispose you to hormonal imbalance?
To keep it simple, the answer is in these two distinct ways:
- We know gluten to be a neuroinflammatory substance. It has been well documented that chronic inflammation is at the root of all degenerative diseases and that inflammation wreaks havoc on all systems of the body, including your brain, where hormones are made. So, is it any surprise a protein that inflames your brain could result in hormonal imbalance? Not at all.
- Gluten results in damage to your gut in a variety of ways. In celiac disease, where the lining of your small intestine is damaged, absorption of nutrients is severely compromised which can result in a diminishment of key vitamins and minerals, along with amino acids and fats that are needed for hormone production. Over and above the absorption issues is that gluten causes a leaky gut, another form of inflammation. An inflamed, leaky gut cross-reacts with your brain, disturbing hormonal balance. The gut-brain connection is well documented.
Let’s dive deeper. Gluten is certainly not the only factor affecting hormonal balance. Stress levels, certain diseases, environmental toxins, and drugs can all affect your hormones. But diet and nutrition, including reactions to gluten, are highly overlooked, especially by conventional medicine.
To make or synthesize hormones requires a balance of nutrients. Sometimes cholesterol is considered a villain, but without it you would not be able to make the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. Fat malabsorption is something commonly seen in those with celiac. Those with gluten sensitivity can also suffer from this. (Clinical insight: if your stool is light brown, yellow, or it floats in the toilet, you are likely suffering from fat malabsorption.)
Other examples include the hormone insulin, made from protein, meaning a protein deficiency can impact this hormone. The same can be seen with a deficiency of the mineral iodine, which will decrease thyroid hormone production.
You can start to see how malabsorption results in hormonal imbalance. And, of course, the Standard American Diet (SAD), not known for its robust nutrient content, is an additional source of problems due to an abundance of “food” devoid of essential nutrients.
Another factor in the equation is that when you are someone who reacts to gluten, the gluten protein can act as an endocrine (hormonal) disruptor by triggering an immune inflammatory response much like chemical endocrine disruptors. This type of reaction can explain why several of the conditions so common amongst those with celiac are hormonal in nature – low thyroid, type 1 diabetes, delayed puberty, and frequent miscarriage.
Women with celiac are more likely to experience issues with fertility, miscarriage, pre-term birth, and menstrual abnormalities. The link is associated with low progesterone, low thyroid hormones, and elevated prolactin (the hormone responsible for milk production).
Comparing pregnancy outcomes of celiac mothers who were following a gluten-free diet as compared to those who ate gluten, the results were profound:
- The relative risk of miscarriage was 8.9 times higher in the untreated group (those eating gluten)
- The relative risk of low birth weight was 5.84 times higher in the untreated group
The good news is all risk was reversed with a gluten-free diet.
Another study analyzed the placentas from over 30 full-term births from celiac mothers. Those eating gluten showed a large amount of gliadin, a gluten protein, within the placental cells. The birth weight of these infants was lower, suggesting that gluten could interact with the placenta, resulting in decreased birth weight.
Let’s look at stress, which can be both physical and/or emotional. Gluten, when you react to it, is stressful on many levels. Your “stress response” is controlled by your adrenal glands. They will release adrenaline and increase cortisol. While a stress response is helpful at times of acute stress, the “fight or flight” response that can get you out of danger, once the response becomes chronic – think about daily gluten ingestion for our purposes – a whole host of trouble awaits you.
Elevated cortisol raises your blood sugar (diabetes), increases inflammation, hinders digestion, raises blood pressure, weakens your immune system, can lead to brittle bones (osteoporosis), and can cause mood swings. It further leads to imbalanced sex hormones, resulting in such symptoms as anxiety, depression, insomnia, weight gain, poor concentration, and weakness.
Women with celiac are more likely to experience issues with fertility, miscarriage, pre-term birth, and menstrual abnormalities.
A couple final points to consider:
- Men, you are not off the hook. Gluten can most definitely affect your hormone levels, as well.
- If you are suffering from any hormonal imbalance symptoms, not just reproductive and libido issues, you could benefit from a lab test to rule out the presence of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
- While celiac disease is typically considered a disease that is diagnosed early in life, that is not always true. You can have the genetics for the disease and eat gluten, but your immune tolerance can diminish with age until you manifest with celiac or gluten sensitivity. To diagnose gluten sensitivity, there are a few tests available to you. My favorite is the Wheat Zoomer from Vibrant America (I have no affiliation with the company) that now can be performed with just a finger prick rather than a formal blood draw.
"Endocrine manifestations of celiac disease" Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism vol. 16, Suppl 2 (2012): S506-8. Philip, R., et al. “Reproductive changes associated with celiac disease.” World Journal of Gastroenterology vol. 16,46 (2010): 5810-4. Freeman, HJ. “Celiac disease and pregnancy outcome.” American Journal of Gastroenterology. 1996 Apr;91(4):718-22. Ciacci, C., et al. “Celiac disease, pregnancy, small for gestational age: role of extravillous trophoblast” Fetal and Pediatric Pathology, 26:3, 125-134. (2007) Hadziselimovic, F., et al. “Physiology, Cortisol” StatPearls Publishing. Updated 2021 Sep 6. Thau, L., et al. GFM
Dr. Vikki Petersen DC. CCN
Founder of Root Cause Medical Clinic
Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner
Dr Vikki Petersen is a public speaker, author of two books, several eBooks and creates cutting edge content for her YouTube community. Dr Vikki is committed to bringing Root Cause Medicine and its unique approach to restoring health naturally to the world.