The Big Difference Between Celiac Disease And Gluten Intolerance

The terms "gluten intolerant" and "celiac disease" are both associated with negative physical reactions to gluten, and both can only be treated by reducing or eliminating gluten from the diet (via Closing the Gap Healthcare). What you may not know about these conditions is that there is a significant difference between the two, and it happens to be a big one. 

The two conditions can share similar unpleasant symptoms and reactions upon ingesting gluten, including diarrhea, fatigue, bloating, stomach pain, and nausea. However, Closing the Gap Healthcare reports that while both conditions create a negative response to gluten in the body, they do not share the same consequences or longevity.

When a gluten intolerant person is exposed to gluten, the uncomfortable symptoms are short-lived, and no known damage is caused to the body. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI), the affects of gluten intolerance are limited to the digestive system. This is not the same as a gluten allergy, which causes the immune system to overreact, and is also unlike Celiac Disease, which is an inherited autoimmune disorder.

Avoiding gluten is crucial for these two conditions

Clinical Dietitian Bethany Doerfler tells Northwestern Medicine that, "Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, whereas gluten intolerance is a sensitivity," and goes on to state that a non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) "...does not typically have a full negative impact on overall health like celiac disease can." Registered dietitian Gabrielle Mancella tells Eat This, Not That! that in the medical field, typically, "We think of gluten intolerance as a fairly tolerable illness...," but she goes on to say that in some cases there may an essential nutrient absorption issue. 

For those with Celiac disease, their body sees gluten as a foreign invader — when it's consumed, the immune system begins attacking the small intestine to defend the body by eradicating the gluten (via NYU Langone Health). This causes irritation, inflammation, and damage to the villi of the small intestine which, if left untreated, can cause malnutrition and an increased risk for other medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto's disease, and even diabetes.

If you think you might have a gluten intolerance or Celiac disease, your doctor may perform a blood test and biopsy of the small intestine (via Closing the Gap Healthcare). These would help your doctor identify whether or not your body has antibodies corresponding to Celiac — if not, you likely just have a gluten intolerance. But the bottom line is, people with either gluten intolerance or Celiac disease should avoid gluten for optimal health.