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How to Tell the Difference Between Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity?

Medically Approved by Dr. Edward Salko

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young woman suffers from a gluten.

This article is Medically Approved by Dr. Edward Salko

The gluten-free diet movement used to be an out-of-nowhere trend popularized by celebrities.

But there is more to this fad than just a personal preference. 

Gluten can trigger a digestive condition called gluten intolerance. Its most common forms are celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.

More information about these two separate disorders has been raised ever since the fad took off. Yet, more research is required to establish other treatments.

Since May is known as the National Celiac Disease Awareness Month, let’s dive into understanding what celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are. 

How the same or different are they? How are they developed?

We give answers to these questions and more.  

Celiac Disease vs Gluten Sensitivity: Are They the Same?

Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are often mistaken as the same condition. 

Although both disorders are triggered by ingesting Gluten, they are distinct forms of health disorders. Their main difference lies in the severity of their reaction to gluten.

The celiac disease triggers an immune response against gluten that damages the intestinal linings. Gluten sensitivity, on the other hand, leads to gastrointestinal irritation due to gluten ingestion.   

People often assume they are the same because they are both forms of gluten intolerance. In the same way, their symptoms are almost identical.

What Is Gluten Anyway?

Gluten is the common name for a group of storage proteins known as prolamins and glutelins. They are naturally found in cereal grains, commonly in wheat and other related species like barley, oats, and rye.

Thereby, wheat-based products in the market contain gluten like bread, pasta, biscuits, and pastries.

Celiac Disease

There has been a steady increase in celiac disease cases annually.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, incident rates of celiac disease are at 7.5% each year over the past years. In the US alone, it affects roughly 3 million Americans.

Understanding this data is imperative to have an established awareness of celiac disease.

What Is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease or celiac sprue is a chronic autoimmune condition wherein affected individuals cannot digest gluten. Instead, it interrupts digestion, particularly the food absorption performed by the small intestine.

This condition leads to health issues such as gut damage and nutrient deficiencies, especially if the sprue is not treated.

The severity even stretched towards starvation despite food intake along with other fatal medical conditions.

It is considered the most severe form of gluten intolerance.

How Does Celiac Disease Develop?

Celiac disease is hereditary and can develop anytime, regardless of age.

The exact cause is yet to be known, but the condition can be activated after certain events such as pregnancy and childbirth, surgery, or viral infection.

People who have been diagnosed with other autoimmune disorders are also most likely to have celiac disease.  

Symptoms of Celiac Disease

·       Abdominal pain

·       Bloating

·       Constipation or diarrhea

·       Foul-smelling stool

·       Sudden Weight loss

·       Vomiting

These symptoms are common in prepubescent children. For adults, however, these symptoms are accompanied by non-gastrointestinal indicators such as :

·       Fatigue

·       Headache

·       Infertility

·       Irregular menstruation

·       Mouth sores

·       Tingling in the hands and feet

·       Tooth discoloration

·       Seizures

·       Skin rashes

How Is Celiac Disease Diagnosed?

Knowing the signs alone is not enough to proceed to a gluten-free diet. It is medically imperative to diagnose the condition with utmost precision. 

Your doctor may order a blood test. The most common blood test for screening celiac disease is the Tissue transglutaminase antibody (tTG)

Before testing, you must eat foods with gluten so that the screening can measure the release of the antibodies.

Gluten Sensitivity

Not everyone who has negative reactions to gluten is diagnosed with celiac disease. Some are more inclined to a gluten-free diet due to their sensitivity to gluten.

Specialists have recognized that between 1% to 3% of the American population may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

What Is Gluten Sensitivity?

Gluten sensitivity is better known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) to establish a fine line between the condition and celiac disease. It is closely similar to celiac disease as it has similar gastrointestinal and non-gastrointestinal symptoms. 

However, the condition is not an autoimmune disorder, and it does not cause any substantial damage to the intestine as absorption is not disrupted.

NCGS is a controversial form of gluten intolerance as the scientific community debates its nature as a clinical disorder.

Some experts suggest that it is more appropriate to call the disorder non-celiac wheat sensitivity excluding other non-wheat foods.

This etiological proposal was supported by studies associating FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) to gluten sensitivity. 

It was suggested that FODMAPS trigger NCGS instead of or in addition to gluten.

As data about gluten sensitivity are still scarce, the arguments will most likely persist.

Nonetheless, it has been proven that a gluten-free diet mainly improves the condition of those who have been diagnosed with gluten sensitivity.

Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity

·       Abdominal pain

·       Anemia

·       Bloating

·       Constipation or diarrhea

·       Depression

·       Weakness

·       Headache

·       Joint pain

·       Skin problems

How Is Gluten Sensitivity Diagnosed?

There are no known biomarkers for gluten sensitivity. Diagnosis of the condition often uses exclusion criteria. This process means that the patient should test negative for Celiac disease and wheat allergy to rule out the said disorders and confirm NGCS.

If you have the symptoms of gluten intolerance, your doctor will probably require you to take a complete profile blood test for celiac disease.

Can Gluten Sensitivity Lead to Celiac Disease?

Since the only information about the cause of the celiac disease is its hereditary element, it is less likely that a person diagnosed with NGCS will eventually develop celiac disease. The latter should have been screened in the exclusion criteria for gluten sensitivity. 

However, as research is still ongoing, future findings may establish a link of progression between celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. For now, they are considered separate forms of gluten intolerance.

What Foods Should You Avoid If You Have Gluten Intolerance?

While a gluten-free diet is a trendy lifestyle choice, it is crucial to understand that it is only recommended for those diagnosed with gluten intolerance like celiac disease and NCGS. 

So if you’ve set your heart to this diet, it is best to consult with your doctor. Otherwise, you may be putting your health into harm instead of good.

On the other hand, if you are prescribed a gluten-free diet, you’ll most likely find it challenging to come up with a gluten-free meal plan since most Western cuisine contains gluten. 

But you can always start by knowing which foods have high gluten content like the following:

1. Cereals

2. Bread

3. Pasta

4. Biscuits and Crackers

5. Cakes and Pastries

6. Seasoning and Spice Mixes

7. Wheat Products (starch, bran)

8. Couscous

9. Barley (including Malt)

10.  Rye

11.  Oats

12.  Chicken Broth

13.  Soy Sauce

14.  Soba Noodles

15.  Condiments

Most food products in the market also have labels suggesting whether or not they contain gluten. This information could guide you in making food choices.

Is There a Cure for Gluten Intolerance?

There is no known cure for gluten intolerance like celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. 

Treatment majorly involves eliminating gluten from the diet. A strict gluten-free regimen allows management and suppression of symptoms. It also promotes intestinal healing.

The absence of a precise cure for celiac disease is enough reason to get tested as soon as symptoms are observed. 

While celiac disease may appear as simple food intolerance, it can lead to complications and even death.

The Bottomline

Outside the lifestyle trend, a gluten-free diet is essential to manage celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.

Gluten is practically everywhere in the food industry. People become at risk of gluten intolerance if they are undiagnosed and untreated on time.

If you have a family history of gluten intolerance, especially celiac disease, contact your doctor and secure a complete profile blood test, even more so if you observed symptoms of gluten intolerance.

The earlier you get diagnosed, the more accurate the treatment will be.

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