Women are at greater risk for osteoporosis than men. But did you know that for women with an undiagnosed gastrointestinal (GI) disorder, such as celiac disease, your risk of osteoporosis is even higher?
"Women are born with a lower bone density than their male peers, and they lose bone mass more quickly as they age," explains Dr. Alissa Speziale, a gastroenterologist affiliated with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group.
"Undiagnosed GI disorders like celiac disease often cause nutritional deficiencies — in this case, a lower rate of vitamin D, calcium and magnesium absorption — which can lead to osteoporosis."
In the United States, approximately 10 million Americans live with osteoporosis and 34 million are at high risk due to low bone mass. As the bones become less dense, you become more susceptible to fracture.
Celiac disease — an inherited intestinal disorder in which the body cannot tolerate gluten — causes damage to the small intestine, which is responsible for absorbing important nutrients like calcium. Calcium is essential for building and maintaining healthy bones. Even women with celiac disease who consume sufficient amounts of calcium can be deficient, leading to bone loss.
Gluten intolerance should not be confused with a diagnosed GI disorder like celiac disease. Risk for osteoporosis is greatly reduced if the patient only has a gluten intolerance.
Eliminating gluten is the first step
The good news for women with celiac disease is that there are treatments available to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Adopting a gluten-free diet improves absorption rates of the necessary nutrients and often leads to improvements in bone density. Occasionally, your doctor will prescribe medications to help prevent or treat both diseases.
Dr. Speziale recommends strict adherence to a gluten-free diet, accompanied by healthy lifestyle choices:
- Diet — Eat foods high in calcium and vitamin D. It is recommended that premenopausal women have at least 1,000 mg of calcium per day and postmenopausal women have 1,200 mg or more of calcium. 800 IU of vitamin D is recommended each day.
- Exercise — Get plenty of weight-bearing exercise, like walking, at least 30 minutes, five times per week. Balance exercises such as yoga and tai chi can also help reduce bone loss and prevent falls.
- Make healthy choices — Stop smoking, cut back or eliminate your caffeine intake, and limit alcohol use.
If you feel you may be at risk for osteoporosis, or have an undiagnosed GI disorder, see your doctor. If necessary, your doctor may refer you to a gastroenterologist and together, you can decide on an appropriate treatment plan.