With the changing lifestyle of today, there are many diseases that arise due to our eating habits. Often times we hear the word gluten intolerance being used with relation to food allergy. Celiac disease is another popular term that we are hearing these days. However, there is a lot of confusion amongst people as to what these two terms exactly mean and what actions need to be taken to treat the two. Celiac disease happens when the immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine, spurred by gluten. Gluten intolerance happens when the ingestion of gluten leads the body to have a stress response. However, the difference between these two is that in gluten intolerance, there is no involvement of the immune system and the intestinal tissue is not damaged either. Gluten is a protein that is generally found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. The reason there is a lot of confusion between celiac disease and gluten intolerance is primarily that both conditions trigger similar or nearly identical symptoms in the body, making it nearly impossible to determine which affliction you are suffering from without conducting medical tests.

Difference Between Celiac Disease & Gluten Intolerance

A Brief Look at Celiac Disease

As mentioned above, celiac disease gives rise to an immune response in the body and attacks the lining of the small intestine. This results in damage to the intestines, known as villous atrophy. This can further lead to malnutrition and also conditions such as osteoporosis. In extreme cases, villous atrophy can also lead to cancer. The condition of celiac disease is autoimmune in nature, meaning that ingestion of gluten does not cause damage to the body directly. Instead, it is the reaction of your immune system to the gluten protein that causes your white blood cells to attack the lining of the small intestine. Celiac disease is not very common and affects around 1% of the population. However, only around 5% of the total population actually knows that they are suffering from celiac disease.

What Causes Celiac Disease?

In spite of several studies, it is not exactly clear as to what causes celiac disease. Most doctors and researchers believe that a host of factors causes celiac disease. Genetics is supposed to play a big role as two specific genes have been linked to celiac disease. If you don't have any of these two genes, the chances of you developing celiac disease are low, though not zero. Of course, as it is linked to gluten, so you must be consuming gluten in order to develop celiac disease. Environmental factors are also known to cause celiac disease. The surprising part about celiac disease is that people can be consuming gluten for decades without having any problems, and then suddenly experience severe celiac disease symptoms overnight. It has been observed that many small children start exhibiting symptoms of celiac disease as soon as gluten grains are introduced to them in their diets.

Most researchers agree on the fact that a 'trigger' is usually needed that ultimately causes celiac disease. It can be an experience of major physical or emotional stress or even an underlying health issue. Many women also begin to experience symptoms of celiac disease when they are pregnant or following the birth of a child. The 'trigger' theory remains unproven as of yet. Another school of thought has to do with the actual gluten content in our diets and the higher levels of gluten in wheat itself. These scientists believe that due to the increase of gluten products in our diets along with wheat being bred with higher levels of gluten, there has been a sharp increase in the occurrence of celiac disease. While there is some evidence supporting this theory, it has also not been proven conclusively.

Celiac disease is also associated with several other autoimmune conditions. These include: Type 1 Diabetes and autoimmune thyroid disease. Symptoms of celiac disease are smelly diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, abdominal pain, excessive gas or flatulence, heartburn and reflux, vomiting or nausea.

A Brief Look at Gluten Intolerance

Gluten intolerance, commonly known as gluten sensitivity, means that your body is sensitive to gluten and does not react well when you consume gluten-containing foods. Gluten intolerance is also known as “non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).” This means that while you don't have celiac disease, you are still, nevertheless, allergic to gluten. In gluten intolerance, the body launches an attack as it sees the gluten protein as an invader and triggers an allergic reaction. The body fights this 'invader' with inflammation from both inside and outside of your digestive tract. The primary difference from celiac disease is that there is no damage to the intestines in gluten intolerance. Gluten intolerance is also much more common than celiac disease. It is expected that gluten intolerance affects nearly 13% of the population.

What Causes Gluten Intolerance?

Just like celiac disease, it is not completely clear what causes gluten intolerance. It is possible that the gluten protein in wheat, rye or barley triggers the condition. However, many researchers are of the opinion that other compounds, such as FODMAPS, that exist in wheat could also be responsible for triggering gluten intolerance. FODMAPS are also found in foods such as onions and garlic. A recent study by researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center actually concluded that gluten sensitivity could be occurring because of a 'leaky gut'. They found that people who had a wheat allergy already had markers in their immune system that indicated 'systemic immune activation'. This activation of the immune system was occurring as food proteins and microbes were crossing the intestinal barrier and moving into the bloodstream, thus triggering a reaction from the body and causing inflammation. Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance include: diarrhea or constipation, bloating, fatigue, abdominal pain, joint pains, headaches and brain fog.

As the symptoms are very much similar to those of celiac disease, people often straightaway jump to the conclusion that they have celiac disease. In rare cases, people who are gluten sensitive can actually experience organ damage or even damage to their neurological systems.

Understanding the Difference Between Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance

While it is very much possible that both these conditions represent two sides of the same coin, it can also be likely that they are two completely separate conditions. We sum up some of the primary differences between Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance to provide some clarity to those who think they might be suffering from either of these afflictions.

Celiac disease gives rise to an immune system response, causing the immune system to go into battle mode. This leads to an attack on healthy body tissues, thus causing damage to the intestinal lining. Gluten intolerance causes no internal damage.

  • Gluten intolerance is much more common than celiac disease.
  • Clinical diagnosis of celiac disease takes a long time. Diagnosis of gluten intolerance is not ascertained as of yet, though most people are wrongly given a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
  • A blood test can be used to ascertain if you have celiac disease, while no specific tests exist for diagnosing gluten intolerance.
  • Celiac disease is assumed to be a genetic condition, while it is unclear whether gluten intolerance has any relation to genetics.
  • People having celiac disease are more likely to have other autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes.
  • People suffering from gluten intolerance can often eat small amounts of gluten without exhibiting any symptoms. People with celiac disease, however, need to follow a gluten-free diet for life.
  • Celiac disease can be serious if left untreated and the risks associated with it are also high. Gluten intolerance is not known to have any long-term or severe consequences.

Written, Edited or Reviewed By:

, MD, FFARCSI

Last Modified On: November 10, 2017

Pain Assist Inc.

Pramod Kerkar
  Note: Information provided is not a substitute for physician, hospital or any form of medical care. Examination and Investigation is necessary for correct diagnosis.

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