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Celiac Disease vs. Gluten Sensitivity: How Are They Different?

Celiac Disease vs. Gluten Sensitivity: How Are They Different?

If you’ve been struggling with persistent digestive troubles and think gluten could be the culprit, you’re in good company. About 18 million Americans are sensitive to gluten, and another 3 million have been diagnosed with celiac disease. 

If you’re worried about gluten, getting an accurate diagnosis is important for your long-term treatment and health. At Rivas Digestive Center in Hollywood, Florida, board-certified gastroenterologist John M. Rivas, MD, can help you get to the bottom of your digestive distress. 

Here’s a closer look at celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, the difference between them, and how to know which condition is making you sick.     

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disease that affects about 1% of all people. This means that if you have celiac disease, you have a gene for the disease, which can be verified with genetic testing. 

When someone with celiac disease eats gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale, it damages the villi in the small intestines. Villi are tiny “fingers” or projections that line the inside of your small intestine and help you absorb nutrients. 

When the villi are damaged, your body has a hard time absorbing nutrients from all foods into your bloodstream. As a result, people with untreated celiac disease end up malnourished and with many other health issues, including body-wide inflammation, anemia, thyroid disease, osteoporosis, infertility, additional autoimmune diseases, and even some cancers.

Everyone with celiac disease experiences the symptoms differently, so you may not have all possible symptoms even if you have the disease. Some of the most common symptoms of celiac disease include:

Some people with celiac disease also experience mouth ulcers and skin rashes, which are caused by the nutrient deficiencies the disease causes. 

What is gluten sensitivity?

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity affects many more people than celiac disease, and medical researchers and doctors are still working to define what this condition involves and there’s no test for it. This means it can be easier to explain non-celiac gluten sensitivity by explaining what it’s not

Gluten sensitivity isn’t the same as a wheat allergy, which is when your immune system attacks wheat molecules as if they were negative invaders. It’s also not the same as celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease. 

However, non-celiac gluten sensitivity shares many of the same symptoms with celiac disease. This means you may still need to avoid gluten to put an end to your symptoms, which include:

Some people with untreated gluten sensitivity also develop depression.  

What are the key ways the conditions differ?

While people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity may feel unwell after eating gluten, they do not experience damage to the villi of the small intestines when they consume products with gluten the way people with celiac disease do.

For both conditions, the only treatment that currently exists is to avoid eating products that contain gluten. It’s important to speak with Dr. Rivas when seeking to eliminate gluten from your diet because many foods and beverages contain gluten but may not call out “gluten” on the food label. 

Can I tell if I have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity?

Dr. Rivas can give you a blood test to screen you for celiac disease. However, the blood test isn’t always accurate depending on your current diet. As such, the best way to learn if you have celiac disease is with an upper endoscopy.

This test allows Dr. Rivas to look at your small intestine, check for inflammation, and remove a small sample to evaluate any damage to the villi. If your celiac disease test is negative and Dr. Rivas has ruled out other conditions, you may be diagnosed with gluten sensitivity by process of elimination.   

If you’re struggling with persistent digestive troubles and are concerned gluten could be the cause, contact the Rivas Digestive Center in Hollywood, Florida, to schedule an appointment with Dr. Rivas. You can reach us at 954-228-5882, or use our online booking tool to schedule now. 

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