Celiac Disease and Bone Density
What is Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a disease characterized by low bone mass and weakening of bone tissue that causes bones to become brittle and more likely to break. The possible consequences of osteoporosis include fractures, stunted height, stooped posture, back and hip pain and breathing problems. People with this condition may break bones from a minor fall, or even from bumping into something. While osteoporosis is often thought of as an older person’s disease, it can strike at any age. It affects more women than men.
What is Osteopenia?
Osteopenia refers to lower than normal bone density. Bone density loss in osteopenia is not as extreme as in osteoporosis. Some experts believe osteopenia is a sign of osteoporosis. Osteopenia does not always lead to osteoporosis, but should be monitored by a medical professional.
What is the Connection between Bone Density and Celiac Disease?
A study from 2016 found that among those recently diagnosed with celiac disease, 56.1% had osteopenia and 29.2% had osteoporosis. A study from 2005 found that those with osteoporosis are 17 times more likely to also have celiac disease. The link was strong enough that the lead researcher of the project, William Stenson, recommended “all individuals with osteoporosis undergo screening (for celiac disease).”
Many researchers recommend that patients with refractory osteoporosis (in other words, osteoporosis that does not respond to treatment or is not improving) be screened for celiac disease. In patients who go on to test positive for celiac disease and start a gluten-free diet, the osteoporosis begins to respond to treatment.
The exact link between celiac disease and excess bone loss remains unknown, but celiac disease damages the intestines and makes it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, which are important for building and maintaining bone density. Therefore, celiac disease can cause the vitamin deficiencies that lead to bone diseases.
Experts recommend that patients with celiac disease be evaluated and monitored for calcium and vitamin D deficiencies. Those with newly diagnosed celiac disease may also experience temporary lactose intolerance, and omitting dairy products from the diet can create an additional risk for decreased bone density.
How are Osteoporosis and Osteopenia Treated?
Generally, bone loss is treated with a group of drugs called bisphosphonates. There are also drugs that can encourage bone growth. Diet and exercise can help, too; dairy products are rich in nutrients that encourage bone growth, and weight-bearing exercises can prevent bone loss and strengthen bones.
In patients who have osteoporosis or osteopenia because of celiac disease, a strict gluten-free diet is often enough to halt bone density loss. However, your doctor or dietitian may still recommend daily supplements to correct calcium and vitamin D deficiencies and ensure you are getting enough nutrients. Do not start any dietary supplements without first talking to your healthcare provider.
Where Can I Learn More?
Do you or a family member suffer from osteoporosis or osteopenia? You may have celiac disease. Find out now. Take our Celiac Disease Symptoms Checklist.