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I’m in my early 30s and I’ve been trying to get pregnant for about a year. One of my friends mentioned that maybe I’m not getting pregnant because I have a food intolerance or allergy. Is there any truth to the connection between infertility and food intolerances? If so, what should I do to be tested and what is involved in treatment?

Written by guest expert, Dr. Alana Shaw, naturopathic doctor at Boda Health, Vancouver, British Columbia. Learn more about Dr. Shaw here.

We have known for centuries that the foods we consume can have a profound effect on our health.  More recently, food intolerances have been linked to a wide range of unpleasant symptoms and chronic conditions including infertility.  While it is unlikely that food intolerance is the only reason you haven’t yet conceived, it may be worth investigating further if you are concerned.

Food intolerances are usually caused by an enzyme deficiency or chemical sensitivity that results in an inappropriate immune system response.  When certain foods can’t be fully digested, the immune system may be triggered to produce specific antibodies that lead to excessive immune activation and inflammation.

Unlike food allergies, food intolerances (also commonly referred to as sensitivities) are not usually fatal and their associated symptoms are often felt 12- 48 hours after eating.  They can affect almost every system in the body, with the most common symptoms being: chronic congestion, sinusitis, asthma, arthritis, joint and muscle pains, vomiting, abdominal bloating and cramping, flatulence, nausea, constipation/diarrhea, water retention, migraines, headaches, mood and behaviour changes, depression, anxiety, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, hives, eczema, itchy skin, canker sores and other rashes. 

Although the evidence is far from conclusive, food intolerances may affect fertility for the following reasons:

  1. They trigger inflammation and can aggravate autoimmune processes.  The prevalence of celiac disease (an autoimmune reaction to gluten) has been reported to be higher in women struggling with unexplained infertility compared to women with normal fertility.  One proposed explanation for infertility and poor pregnancy outcomes in people with celiac disease is malabsorption of folic acid, iron and other key nutrients.  Other autoimmune conditions that impair fertility, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, may also be related to certain food sensitivities.
  2. They can affect absorption of nutrients: Absorption of nutrients is dependent on a healthy digestive system. Many food intolerances cause digestive upset and can contribute to inadequate absorption of nutrients that are important for fertility.
  3. They affect your quality of life:  Any symptom that prevents you from reaching your optimal health could potentially impact your fertility. For example, itchy skin could disrupt your sleep, chronic bloating could sabotage your exercise routine, fatigue might lower your sex drive, and recurrent sinus or urinary tract infections usually result in frequent use of medications with undesirable side effects.

Despite the lack of solid evidence to link fertility problems with food intolerances, some health professionals believe that addressing food intolerances may help to optimize fertility, and improve an individual’s overall quality of life. The gold standard for identifying food intolerances is a strict elimination diet with careful food reintroduction. Certain tests that measure IgG antibodies in your blood can also be used to identify problematic foods. A raised level of food antibodies is not a problem in itself, but can help to identify foods that are the most likely to be a problem. Testing for, and treatment of, food intolerance should always be done under the guidance of a qualified health care provider since it is important to maintain a balanced diet while eliminating certain foods.

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