Celiac Disease vs Gluten Intolerance: Spotting the Difference

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Celiac Disease vs Gluten Intolerance: Spotting the Difference

Gluten free diets have risen in popularity, but there are many people who do not understand what being gluten free entails, or why someone would need to be gluten free. Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are both conditions that relate to gluten. While they might have some similarities in their symptoms, there are distinct differences between both conditions. Here’s what you should know about celiac disease versus gluten intolerance.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in certain grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, and it is known for binding grain-based ingredients together in recipes, as well as giving bread its unique texture. While some people claim to see the benefits of a gluten free diet, it is not a factor in weight loss. It is much more beneficial when used as a strict, long-term eating plan for people with celiac disease, gluten intolerance or any other kind of gluten allergy.

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder and it affects the digestive process of the small intestine. When a person who has this disease consumes gluten, the immune system launches an attack against the gluten and damages the healthy cells in the small intestine.

Over time, celiac disease-related autoimmune activity affects the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients from food – which can lead to a plethora of side effects such as chronic fatigue, brain fog, bone or joint pain, tingling in the hands or feet, and even depression or anxiety. If a person with celiac disease continues to consume gluten, damage can and will be done to the digestive system – a lifelong gluten free diet is the only known effective treatment for this condition.

What is Gluten Intolerance?

Also known as non-celiac gluten intolerance or sensitivity, it is not an autoimmune reaction like celiac disease or an allergic reaction to gluten. A diagnosis of gluten intolerance is usually made by ruling out other conditions – there is no test that can be used to diagnose it. If celiac disease and wheat allergies have both been ruled out, switching to a gluten free diet may be suggested and if that results in you not having symptoms, a diagnosis of gluten intolerance can then be given. Currently, a gluten free diet is the only known treatment for gluten sensitivity.

How is Gluten Intolerance Different?

It is fairly common for the term gluten intolerance to be used interchangeably with gluten sensitivity. While neither of these terms are actually defined within the medical community, many consider gluten sensitivity to be a milder form of gluten intolerance. 

Unlike celiac disease, both gluten sensitivity and intolerance do not damage the lining of the small intestine. Despite this, the body does identify gluten as a foreign pathogen – which triggers an immune response. Inflammation is part of this response and can cause side effects such as bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal discomfort but the symptoms and the inflammation typically cease as soon as the gluten exits the body. Frequent gluten consumption with an intolerance or sensitivity may cause other symptoms such as headaches, lethargy, hyperactivity, muscle weakness, and joint pain.

Knowing the Difference Between the Two

If you experience any symptoms after consuming gluten, it is most likely that you have some kind of adverse reaction to gluten. Unfortunately, identifying the exact condition you have may not be easy. The first step in diagnosing your problem is to have a blood test run. Make sure you are still consuming gluten during these tests – and only go gluten free after receiving a proper diagnosis.

A blood test can’t give a diagnosis of celiac disease, but it can reveal the presence of certain antibodies which would show an autoimmune or allergic reaction to gluten. If your blood test comes back positive for these antibodies, your doctor may recommend an endoscopy to check the small intestine for damage, which would confirm a diagnosis of celiac disease while a healthy small intestine would suggest gluten intolerance or another kind of gluten related issue.

Getting a Proper Diagnosis

If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, you need to switch to a gluten free diet as soon as you can. For gluten sensitivity or intolerance, you might still be able to consume gluten if you have mild symptoms, but you most likely will find it best to switch to a completely gluten free diet. Despite the unexciting prospect of a gluten free diet, there are a wide range of foods that you are still able to eat, as well as gluten free alternatives. You may not even have to give up your favorite foods – you’ll just have to switch to the gluten free option.


If you feel as though you may have either of these conditions and you would like to receive a proper diagnosis, contact Triborough GI today to schedule an appointment!

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