A gluten free diet is becoming more popular in recent years. Many individuals are reducing their intake of gluten as a way to manage their weight. However, several people avoid gluten because of a medical condition.
Celiac disease and non celiac gluten sensitivity can cause uncomfortable symptoms after eating food products like bread and pasta. Symptoms can range from gas and bloating to pain and weight loss.
Testing for gluten intolerance is also on the rise as people become more aware of the symptoms. While most identify allergies quickly, intolerances can go undiagnosed for years.
If you or someone you know is showing signs of gluten intolerance, it can be important to know the difference between celiac disease and a gluten sensitivity. Learn more about both below.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes damage to someone’s small intestine when they consume gluten. The individual’s body fights against gluten, which causes celiac symptoms.
Celiac symptoms can occur when those with the condition ingest foods with wheat, rye, and barley. Symptoms can include the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Weight loss
- Joint pain
- Mouth sores
Less than one percent of the population suffers from celiac disease. It is a genetic condition that runs in families, meaning individuals with celiac disease inherited the disease from their parents or grandparents.
Individuals may not show signs of gluten intolerance when they are children but develop the symptoms later in life. Celiac disease can present at any age.
If left untreated, the disorder can lead to other health complications. Individuals with celiac disease have a greater risk of developing:
- Coronary artery and heart disease.
- Small bowel and intestinal cancers.
- Type 1 diabetes.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS).
- Dermatitis herpetiformis.
- Infertility problems, such as miscarriages.
- Neurological conditions, such as epilepsy and migraines.
- Iron deficiency.
Detecting celiac disease early reduces the risk of developing another autoimmune condition. Celiac testing can diagnose the condition if someone shows gluten intolerance symptoms.
There are two types of blood tests. One checks for antibodies that indicate an immune reaction to gluten. The other is a genetic test that looks for human leukocyte antigens, which play a key role in the body’s immune response.
The only treatment for celiac disease is a strict gluten free diet. There is no cure for the disease.
What is Non Celiac Gluten Sensitivity?
Some individuals can present signs of celiac but have negative or normal blood tests. These people have non celiac gluten sensitivity and must maintain a gluten free diet to manage their health.
The key difference between non celiac gluten sensitivity and celiac disease is that those with a sensitivity do not have the same antibodies as those with the disease. Likewise, individuals with gluten sensitivity do not experience the same intestinal damages as those with the disease.
Food intolerance can stem from:
- The absence of an enzyme needed to digest certain foods, such as gluten.
- Sensitivity to additives.
- Irritable bowel syndrome.
- Psychological factors.
Non celiac gluten sensitivity does not cause the same level of damage as celiac disease. Sticking to a gluten free diet greatly reduces symptoms.
Individuals with gluten sensitivity can also try other treatments in addition to altering their diet. Supplements can help the body breakdown nutrients better, lessen symptoms, and repair damage.
Some supplements include:
- Collagen and L-glutamine to repair and protect your stomach lining and digestive tract.
- Omega-3 fatty acid to decrease inflammation.
- Digestive enzymes to break down gluten.
- Charcoal to reduce bloating and gas.
Drinking plenty of water and eating nutritious foods also help decrease related symptoms.
Treating Symptoms with a Gluten Free Diet
A gluten free diet is a necessity for those with celiac disease or an intolerance. However, others without sensitivities enjoy the benefits of a gluten free diet, such as weight loss.
Gluten is foods that contain wheat, such as bread, cereal, and pasta. It is also in other consumables like beer, soy sauce, and products with malt. Dieticians, pharmacists, and certain websites can help you determine which foods and beverages contain gluten.
You can find many foods in the grocery store marked with “Gluten-Free” on the label. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has special rules on what manufacturers can label as gluten-free.
However, not all gluten-free foods have a gluten-free label. For instance, produce rarely has indicators of being free of gluten.
Similarly, some products that are normally gluten-free may have had gluten added during processing. For example, most dairy products do not have gluten unless flavor additives contain gluten.
Many gluten-free grain products have lower levels of iron, fiber, potassium, and zinc. Because of this, you may experience nutritional deficiencies without consciously choosing foods to make up the deficiency.
Good sources of:
- Fiber includes fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, millet, and quinoa.
- Iron includes beef, beans, quinoa, amaranth, and teff.
- Zinc include chicken, oysters, cashews, shellfish, and shrimp.
- Potassium includes potatoes, amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat.
Individuals with celiac disease and diabetes need to carefully plan their meals to avoid gluten as well as sugar and carbohydrates. Gluten-free products often have higher levels of sugar and carbs.
Likewise, some diabetic medications can contain gluten. Be sure to consult with your doctor or pharmacist about your prescription and its contents.
Gluten Allergy Versus Intolerance
Non celiac gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are different from gluten or wheat allergies. A wheat allergy occurs when the immune system mistakes gluten for a virus or disease-causing agent.
Allergies can cause life-threatening complications after ingestion. Within a few minutes to an hour, an allergy can cause:
- Shortness of breath.
- Loss of consciousness.
While gluten intolerance symptoms can be uncomfortable, an allergy can be very severe and affect multiple organs and systems. With a food intolerance, you may be able to eat small traces without a physical reaction.
Individuals with a gluten allergy must act quickly, and many with known allergies carry auto-injectable epinephrine in case they have an attack. This medication helps relax any muscles blocking airways.