Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance: What's the Difference

People often don’t know the differences between celiac disease and gluten intolerance is. I’m frequently asked “I have the symptoms of both celiac and gluten intolerance. How do I know which one I have”.

First, I want to say – I am not a doctor and I can’t diagnose you.

Second, as you’ll learn further in this post, the only way to know which one you have is to be tested. If you are concerned about having gluten intolerance or celiac disease, talk to your doctor.

With that said, hopefully this post can help clear up some of the confusion.

Table of Contents

What is Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where the body attacks itself when you eat gluten.

More specifically, the body attacks the small intestine. This attack can damage the the small intestine. As a result this intestinal damage can cause nutrient deficiencies and serious symptoms.

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What are the Symptoms of Celiac Disease?

There are over 300 reported symptoms of celiac disease. From diarrhea to brain fog, celiac disease can impact many parts of the body.

Some common symptoms of celiac disease include:

  • Pain
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Heartburn
  • GI Distress
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach ache
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches/Migraines
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Nutrient deficiencies (like low vitamin D, calcium, and iron deficiency anemia)
  • Malabsorption

and more.

How do you get a Celiac Diagnosis

Getting diagnosed with celiac disease involves a series of tests. Every doctor is different but the gold standard is to be tested for inflammatory blood markers. If your blood markers come back positive, the next step is to confirm the diagnosis with an endoscopy and biopsy of the small intestine. 

Many gastroenterologist describe diagnosing celiac disease as an art. Celiac disease testing can involve a lot of moving parts which is why it’s important you get tests and don’t just assume you have it.

What's the Treatment for Celiac?

The ONLY treatment for celiac disease is a life-long gluten-free diet. There are no clinically proven medications, supplements or cures on the market for celiac right now.

What is Gluten Intolerance?

Gluten intolerance is also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. It’s when you don’t have celiac or a wheat allergy, but find yourself reacting poorly to gluten.

There is no measurable autoimmune reaction like with celiac or a food allergy, yet the body is still reacting.

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Are the Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance Different From Celiac Disease?

The symptoms of gluten intolerance are the same as celiac disease with one exception. That exception being the characteristic small intestinal damage.

Thus, the main difference between celiac and gluten intolerance is that those with celiac have small intestinal damage and the majority of people with gluten intolerance don’t (though there are a few noted to experiencing it according to new studies).

How do you Know if It's Celiac or Gluten Intolerance?

It is difficult for people to clinically separate gluten intolerance from IBS. Additionally, there aren’t many good tests specifically designed for diagnosing gluten intolerance. Often, many people who have gluten intolerance are self-diagnosed or receive this diagnosis following negative exclusionary tests (AKA, they were tested for things like celiac, before a final gluten intolerance diagnosis).

What is the Treatment for Gluten Intolerance?

A gluten-free lifestyle is the treatment for gluten intolerance. Though it should be noted that sometimes food intolerances, like gluten intolerance, can be grown out of. This is different from celiac disease. So a gluten-free lifestyle is not always lifelong for people with gluten intolerance.

What is the Difference Between Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance?

It’s hard to understand the differences between celiac disease and gluten intolerance because of their similarities. These similarities also make it hard to know which condition you have unless you are tested. Meaning, you can’t self-diagnose yourself with either.

The key differences between the two? Celiac disease always involves an autoimmune reaction. It always involves  damage in the small intestine. Lastly, celiac disease is always lifelong. There is no cure for celiac and there is no growing out of it.

Where as you can grow out of gluten intolerance. Meaning, gluten can be reintroduced later on in life. Additionally, damage in the small intestine is only reported in a very small group of people with wheat intolerance.

So which one do you have? The only way know is to be tested for celiac disease. Self-diagnosis is not an option. There is no way of knowing if you have celiac or gluten intolerance without being tested. If you’re concerned you have either, talk to your doctor. They are your best resource when it comes to diagnosis.

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