Difference between Coeliac Disease and Gluten Intolerance: Why diagnosis is important

Do you experience stomach ache, ingestion or any other unpleasant symptoms after consuming gluten-rich food? Both coeliac disease and gluten intolerance can cause similar symptoms, but they have distinct ways of reacting to gluten. While someone with coeliac disease will induce an autoimmune response against gluten, gluten intolerance is more of a digestive disorder that causes no permanent damage. 

What is the difference between coeliac disease and gluten intolerance? 

Although in many ways, coeliac disease and gluten intolerance are similar disorders and caused due to consuming gluten, both are medically distinct and requires unique treatment and diagnosis.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder, meaning the immune system confuses gluten with foreign infection and mistakenly attacks its own tissues as an act of defence. This gluten reaction can cause permanent problems including diminishing the lining of the small intestine and preventing the body from absorbing nutrients

Although, it is still not clear as to why the immune system reacts this way, a combination of environmental factors and genetics seems to influence this immune reaction.

In the case of gluten intolerance, it is a digestive disorder that can cause discomfort, but it is unlikely to cause any permanent health issues, unlike coeliac disease. 

But, in both cases being aware of your condition is crucial for healthy living and this is possible only through proper diagnosis.

What are the common symptoms of coeliac disease and gluten intolerance? 

A man suffering from stomach ache due to coeliac disease, gluten intolerance GP in Brisbane

Whether you’re suffering from coeliac disease or gluten-intolerant, both come with a variety of symptoms that could be different for different people. 

But here is a list of common symptoms seen in both gluten intolerance and coeliac disease:

  • Diarrhoea, which is one of the first symptoms people see even before being diagnosed 
  • Weight loss and difficulty maintaining a healthy weight 
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Inflammation
  • Constipation 
  • Bloating
  • Itchy skin
  • Anaemia 

In addition to these symptoms, coeliac disease can also cause disorders that affect coordination, speech and balance and loss of bone density or osteoporosis. If coeliac disease is ruled out, your doctor may recommend an elimination diet trial to reveal gluten intolerance.

When to see a doctor? 

If you believe that consuming food with gluten is causing any health issues, then you should see a doctor. 

Since the symptoms for both conditions are similar, your doctor is likely to perform medical tests to confirm the coeliac disease. They may also recommend you to stick to your usual diet to monitor symptoms until they provide further instructions to eliminate gluten from your diet. Both the condition has unique medical tests that can prove its diagnosis. 

Diagnosis of Gluten Intolerance

Diagnosis of Coeliac disease

Since gluten intolerance is less understood by doctors, your doctor will likely conduct a “rule out” diagnosis. This means they will try to diagnose gluten intolerance with other associated conditions, and if you don’t have any, they will examine further for gluten intolerance. 

To diagnose coeliac disease, your doctor may ask for a blood test and a biopsy. They will start your diagnosis for coeliac disease by using a small sample from your small intestine. Using this sample, they will test if there are specific antibodies in your blood that can be scaled down to coeliac disease. 

Bottom line

It is important to know that, since gluten intolerance and coeliac disease have similar symptoms, self-diagnosis and going gluten-free is not at all recommended. The best way to be aware of your condition is by consulting a doctor.

Follow-up care after being diagnosed with coeliac disease or gluten intolerance 

Adhering to gluten-free diet is the only way to manage gluten intolerance and coeliac disease

Since treating gluten intolerance and coeliac disease is mainly focused on eliminating gluten from the diet. You can manage your condition if: 

  • Strictly adhering to a gluten-free diet as it is the only prognosis for living with these conditions
  • Avoiding food like cereals, pasta, bread, rye, basically everything that has gluten. 
  • Avoiding bread, pasta and drinking beer as they have gluten as a main ingredient. 
  • Taking care when consuming soy sauce, meat substitutes, salad dressing, marinades and battered food as they can contain traces of gluten
  • Taking extra precautions like knowing more about processing facilities of packaged food, for example, oatmeal which doesn’t contain gluten, but are often processed in the same facilities as food with gluten 
  • Washing your food products and preparing them in separate utensils as gluten-free products can pick up microparticles from gluten food 

  Strictly adhering to a gluten-free diet as it is the only prognosis for living with these conditions.

Should I avoid gluten-free food, even when I don’t have coeliac disease or gluten intolerance? 

Considering gluten is completely harmless that occurs naturally in various food, eating a gluten-free diet is not recommended for someone without coeliac disease or gluten intolerance. 

A gluten-free diet is highly restrictive and may result in nutrient deficiencies. 

It should be avoided only if you’re allergic to wheat or managing gluten intolerance and coeliac disease as asked by a doctor.