The Difference Between Celiac and Gluten Intolerance

by JJ Virgin on October 14, 2019

Here at Team JJ, we help people find their food intolerances so they can take back their health and feel better again. 

And when it comes to culprits that cause food intolerance symptoms, I’ll bet you can guess one of the most common: gluten. After all, there’s a reason everyone is going gluten-free – it isn’t just a fad!

However, it’s very important to understand the difference between a gluten sensitivity and the autoimmune condition known as celiac disease. 

What is Food Intolerance?

Before we dive into the details of celiac and gluten sensitivity, it’s important to know what I mean when I talk about food intolerance.

If you’ve ever experienced symptoms like gas and bloating, brain fog, headaches, joint pain, or fatigue in the hours or even days after eating certain foods, then you’re all too familiar with food intolerance! 

As I explained in my first New York Times bestseller, The Virgin Diet, a negative reaction to certain foods can make you feel miserable by creating an immune response in your body. And when your immune system remains fired up on a regular basis, chronic inflammation is the result. 

That’s a big problem because long-term inflammation can harm your waistline and your health! 

Not only can that inflammation lead to uncomfortable symptoms like stubborn weight gain, skin trouble, and digestive issues, it can also play a role in autoimmune disorders and other serious health conditions.  

The Difference Between Gluten Intolerance & Celiac 

Gluten intolerance and celiac disease do have two important things in common: 

  1. They both tend to run in families.
  2. They can both lead to chronic inflammation and serious health effects. 

Studies show that the risk of developing celiac disease is increased by certain genes that play a critical role in the immune system.5 In addition, the frequency of gluten intolerance has been shown to be higher in first-degree relatives of people with celiac disease.2

However, knowing whether you have celiac or gluten intolerance is vital in determining your next steps for healing, as well as how vigilant you need to be about avoiding gluten.

Think of It Like This…

To better understand how eating gluten when you have a gluten intolerance can be harmful, think of it as having a pebble stuck in your shoe. 

At first you may not even notice it. But If you keep walking on that pebble over and over again, eventually it will begin to hurt you. 

And if you don’t remove that pebble from your shoe, over time, it can lead to other problems – some of which could be really serious. 

On the other hand, when you consume gluten when you have celiac disease, it’s like stepping on a thumbtack. The effects are noticeable right away and will cause serious damage if you don’t take action soon!

Do you have gluten intolerance or celiac? Let’s break down the basic science and review the most common symptoms for them both…

What Is Celiac Disease? 

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that typically runs in families and is triggered by eating gluten. In patients with celiac disease, exposure to gluten causes the body to launch an immune response that attacks the small intestine, resulting in immediate damage. 

Symptoms of celiac disease are numerous and can be potentially life-threatening. Although signs and symptoms can vary, here are some of the most common gastrointestinal complaints:1,2

  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Fatty stools 
  • Weight loss 
  • Gas and bloating 
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Nausea and vomiting

But because celiac disease is an autoimmune condition and seriously affects your gut health, it can also affect multiple other systems in your body! That’s in part because at least 70% of your immune system is housed in your digestive tract, along with important neurotransmitters and hormones. 

What’s more, celiac disease can be associated with other disorders, including numerous autoimmune diseases. In fact, studies show that approximately 25% of people with celiac disease have been diagnosed with one or more additional autoimmune conditions!2

Over time, people with celiac disease can experience many other symptoms:1,2

  • Abnormal liver enzymes 
  • Malabsorption of micronutrients 
  • Iron deficiency anemia 
  • Anxiety, depression, or ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)
  • Fatigue
  • Osteoporosis and other bone-related issues 
  • Skin disorders
  • Impaired coordination and balance 
  • Weakness, numbness, or pain in hands or feet 
  • Poor growth (in children) 
  • Issues with menstruation and/or fertility in females 
  • Lung infections or breathing issues

Symptoms of celiac disease can also change over time, and some celiac patients don’t have any symptoms at all. 

Celiac Was Once A Mystery 

Although celiac disease has recently started to gain more attention, for a long time, doctors didn’t know that celiac disease even existed. Instead, patients would be diagnosed with something called “failure to thrive.” That unfortunate diagnosis almost always meant that patients lost their lives. 

If you were diagnosed with failure to thrive as an infant, you might go on to have breathing problems and get sick often. If you were a girl, you may also have trouble with your period or pregnancy-related issues. 

Patients would eventually begin to waste away because they simply couldn’t digest their food. Over time, their major organs would begin to fail, and they would literally starve to death or succumb to the results of their troubled immune system. 

Once doctors discovered celiac disease and figured out what triggered it, they were able to prevent untimely death from this serious condition. But diagnosing celiac disease still remains complicated because the testing process can be challenging. 

However, the good news is that celiac disease is finally starting to get the visibility it deserves, especially considering how prevalent and dangerous it can be! 

What Is Gluten Intolerance? 

In contrast to celiac disease, gluten intolerance is not deadly. But the long-term issues it causes can be just as dangerous! 

Gluten intolerance, sometimes called “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” occurs when your body has a negative reaction to eating gluten. Some of the classic symptoms of gluten intolerance include:2,4

  • Abdominal pain 
  • Gas and bloating 
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Fatigue 
  • Brain fog 
  • Headaches 
  • Joint or muscle pain 
  • Mood issues (anxiety, depression) 
  • Skin problems (hives, acne, rosacea, psoriasis) 
  • Numbness in legs or arms 
  • Anemia 

You may notice that some of those symptoms are similar to those of celiac. However, unlike celiac disease, consuming gluten doesn’t lead directly to damage to the small intestine in folks with a gluten intolerance. 

Instead, eating gluten when you have a gluten intolerance challenges your digestive and immune systems until they start to break down. Here’s how that works…

When your gut health is compromised, whether that’s due to stress, infection, or consuming a typical American diet, that can make your gut more permeable by weakening something called “tight junctions.” (Those tight junctions are responsible for ensuring your digestive tract functions normally, including all the work it does to maintain your immune system and hormonal balance.)

As the tight junctions begin to loosen and come apart in a disease process called “leaky gut,” then toxins and partially digested food – including the proteins found in gluten – can escape into your bloodstream. 

They shouldn’t be there! That causes your body to launch an immune response to what seems like dangerous invaders.3 

As a result, you release a cascade of inflammatory chemicals. Over time, repeatedly eating foods your body can’t tolerate, such as gluten, can lead to chronic inflammation and all the problems that go along with it.

Not only can inflammation cause symptoms like weight gain, gut issues, fatigue, and skin breakouts, long-term inflammation is also a factor in almost every major health issue, from cancer to type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

(Here’s an article that goes even deeper into the science behind leaky gut and how your functional medicine doctor can test for it…)

What to Do About Celiac Disease & Gluten Intolerance

The primary treatment for both gluten intolerance and celiac disease is the same: avoid gluten-containing foods.

However, for someone with celiac disease, ANY exposure to gluten is dangerous, including eating gluten-free items made in a facility that also processes wheat. Some patients even report symptoms from breathing in high levels of gluten in a bakery or cafe.

That’s why it’s crucial to be vigilant and ensure that you strictly avoid gluten for life if you have celiac disease. 

It’s also important to keep in mind that people with celiac disease should stay away from corn. That’s because corn can easily be mistaken for gluten in the body, since the two have similar protein structures. 

(Not coincidentally, corn is also one of the 7 foods most likely to cause food intolerance that I wrote about in The Virgin Diet…) 

Note: because celiac disease is an autoimmune condition, it can cause serious secondary issues. It’s essential to seek medical attention immediately if you suspect that you or a loved one may have it. 

If you have gluten intolerance instead of celiac disease, in addition to removing gluten from your diet, it’s key to identify any other food sensitivities you may have and focus on healing and repairing your gut.

The easiest way to do that is to use a simple elimination diet like The Virgin Diet to do a 3-week cleanse of the common culprits, then test them back one by one. Tracking your symptoms will help you discover which foods are fine and which should stay out.

Taking digestive enzymes that are designed to help better break down gluten proteins can also be a great ally when it comes to preventing some of the uncomfortable symptoms of gluten intolerance. Our version is called Safety Net Plus, and you can find out more about it here.

As you continue to heal your gut, you may find that you can tolerate small amounts of gluten. But I’ll be honest, I don’t recommend that anyone include gluten in their diet! (You can find out the Top 5 Reasons to Avoid Gluten here…) 

Bottom line: If you suspect you might have celiac disease, be sure to contact your healthcare provider right away. 

And if you think gluten sensitivity might be a problem for you, try dropping gluten from your diet for a week with my fun, free 7-Day Stop, Drop & Swap Challenge, and see how you feel. (It will walk you step-by-step through the first week of The Virgin Diet.)

Whether you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, you don’t have to suffer from the awful effects of gluten any longer! 

Have questions? Follow me on Facebook or Instagram and let us know how my team and I can best support you! 

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