Gluten Sensitivity Vs Celiac Disease: What's the Difference and How to Test for Them

Gluten Sensitivity Vs Celiac Disease: What's the Difference and How to Test for Them

Table of Contents


Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are often used interchangeably to describe gluten reactions, but they are actually distinct conditions that require different approaches for diagnosis and treatment. Failing to differentiate between them can result in unnecessary dietary restrictions or inadequate management of a serious health condition. This article will provide an introduction to gluten sensitivity and celiac disease, explain why it is important to distinguish between the two and discuss in detail the available testing options for each condition.

Gluten Sensitivity

Gluten Sensitivity

Definition of gluten sensitivity

Gluten sensitivity, also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, is a condition in which a person experiences adverse reactions to gluten-containing foods, even though they do not have celiac disease or wheat allergy.

Symptoms and effects on the body

Gluten sensitivity can cause a range of symptoms that affect the digestive system, as well as other parts of the body. Some of the most common symptoms of gluten sensitivity include:

  • Abdominal pain and bloating
  • Diarrhea, constipation, or both
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Joint pain and inflammation
  • Skin rashes, such as eczema or dermatitis
  • Mood changes, such as anxiety or depression

These symptoms can vary in severity and duration from person to person. Some people may experience only mild symptoms, while others may experience more severe and chronic symptoms.

In addition to the physical symptoms, gluten sensitivity can also have an impact on a person's quality of life, as they may need to make significant changes to their diet and lifestyle to manage their symptoms. For example, they may need to avoid certain foods, which can limit their food choices and social activities. They may also experience anxiety and stress related to their condition.

It is important to note that both gluten sensitivity and celiac disease can cause similar symptoms. Thus, it is important to seek medical advice if you suspect you may have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.

Potential Causes 

Although the exact cause of gluten sensitivity remains uncertain, various potential factors have been suggested. It has been proposed that gluten sensitivity may result from an immune reaction to gluten, which resembles the mechanism underlying celiac disease. Nonetheless, unlike celiac disease, gluten sensitivity does not cause the same degree of harm to the small intestine.

Potential Causes

Other potential causes of gluten sensitivity include:

  • Genetic predisposition: Some studies have suggested that certain genetic factors may make a person more likely to develop gluten sensitivity.
  • Gut dysbiosis: An imbalance of gut bacteria, also known as dysbiosis, may contribute to the development of gluten sensitivity.
  • Food processing: Some researchers believe that modern food processing techniques, such as the use of pesticides and genetically modified crops, may increase the risk of gluten sensitivity.
  • Non-gluten proteins: Some individuals with gluten sensitivity may be reacting to other proteins found in wheat and other grains, rather than gluten itself.

Risk Factors

At present, there is a lack of identified risk factors for gluten sensitivity. Nevertheless, certain studies propose that individuals with a family history of gluten sensitivity or celiac disease may have an increased likelihood of developing gluten sensitivity. Other potential risk factors that have been suggested include exposure to environmental toxins, gastrointestinal infections, and hormonal imbalances. However, further research is necessary to gain a better understanding of the risk factors associated with gluten sensitivity.

Diagnosis and testing options

Diagnosis and testing options for gluten sensitivity include a variety of approaches, such as:

  • Elimination diet: This method involves the temporary removal of gluten from the diet to observe if symptoms improve. Following this, gluten is reintroduced to the diet to observe if symptoms recur, which can help confirm the diagnosis of gluten sensitivity.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests can detect the presence of specific antibodies in the bloodstream that may suggest gluten sensitivity. These antibodies include anti-gliadin antibodies (AGA), anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies (tTG), and anti-endomysial antibodies (EMA).
  • Genetic testing: Genetic testing can identify if an individual carries specific genes that are linked to a higher likelihood of developing gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. However, it's important to note that having these genes does not automatically mean that an individual will develop either condition.

Celiac Disease

Definition of celiac disease

Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder that causes a damaging reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. When an individual with celiac disease consumes gluten, their immune system mistakenly attacks the small intestine, causing damage and interfering with the absorption of nutrients from food.

Celiac Disease

Symptoms and effects on the body

Symptoms of celiac disease may vary from person to person. Some common symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fatigue 
  • Weight loss 
  • Malnutrition 
  • Anemia
  • Skin rashes
  • Bone or joint pain. 

Over time, if left untreated, celiac disease can cause damage to the small intestine, leading to long-term health problems such as nutrient deficiencies, osteoporosis, and an increased risk of certain cancers.

Potential causes

Although the precise cause of celiac disease remains unknown, it is thought to result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. HLA genes, particularly those associated with celiac disease, are the primary genetic factor. Other environmental factors, such as early exposure to gluten, gastrointestinal infections, and certain medical conditions like type 1 diabetes and autoimmune thyroid disease, may also contribute to the development of celiac disease. 

Risk Factors

Celiac disease can affect individuals of all ages and backgrounds, but certain risk factors have been identified. These include having a family history of celiac disease, having a related autoimmune disorder, such as type 1 diabetes or autoimmune thyroid disease, and being of European descent. Women also have a slightly higher risk of developing celiac disease compared to men. Additionally, individuals who have prolonged exposure to gluten, such as those who consume a high-gluten diet, may also be at an increased risk.

Diagnosis and testing options

Celiac disease can be diagnosed through a combination of tests. 

Blood tests 

Blood tests can detect the presence of certain antibodies in the blood that are commonly found in individuals with celiac diseases, such as anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies (tTG) and anti-endomysial antibodies (EMA). 

Intestinal biopsy 

An intestinal biopsy involves taking a small tissue sample from the lining of the small intestine to check for damage or inflammation. 

Genetic testing 

Genetic testing can also be used to identify the presence of certain genes associated with celiac disease, although having these genes does not necessarily mean an individual will develop the condition.

A diagnosis of celiac disease typically requires a positive result on both blood tests and an intestinal biopsy.

Differences Between Gluten Sensitivity and Celiac Disease

While gluten sensitivity and celiac disease share some common symptoms, such as digestive problems, headaches, and fatigue, celiac disease can lead to more severe complications such as damage to the small intestine and the risk of developing certain cancers due to malabsorption of nutrients. In contrast, gluten sensitivity does not cause such intestinal damage.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that is brought about by genetic factors, specifically the existence of particular HLA genes, and can be triggered by exposure to gluten. In contrast, gluten sensitivity does not entail an autoimmune reaction, and its precise causes remain uncertain.

Although both conditions are related to a sensitivity to gluten, gluten sensitivity is a broader term that includes various non-celiac gluten sensitivities, which may have a range of symptoms that do not necessarily involve the immune system or intestinal damage. In contrast, celiac disease is a more specific and severe type of gluten sensitivity that triggers an autoimmune response and can result in harm to the small intestine.

Treatment and Management

Lifestyle modifications

The following are the treatment modalities for gluten sensitivity and celiac disease:

  • Gluten-free diet: The main approach for managing both gluten sensitivity and celiac disease is adhering to a rigorous gluten-free diet, which requires eliminating all sources of gluten, including wheat, barley, rye, and any food products containing them. While avoiding gluten can be difficult since it is present in several common foods, there are now a variety of gluten-free alternatives accessible.
  • Medications and supplements: Medications and supplements can be used to manage symptoms and improve health in some cases. Vitamin and mineral supplements may be necessary for individuals with celiac disease to address any nutrient deficiencies resulting from malabsorption. In severe cases or complications, medications like corticosteroids or immunosuppressants may be prescribed to treat symptoms.
  • Lifestyle modifications: A lifestyle change can also aid in managing symptoms and promoting overall health. This may include adopting stress management strategies, engaging in regular physical activity, and abstaining from smoking and excessive alcohol intake.

Regular monitoring and follow-up testing are crucial for both gluten sensitivity and celiac disease. Healthcare providers may recommend periodic blood tests to track the levels of specific antibodies in the blood, or even an occasional endoscopy to assess the health of the small intestine. Working closely with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian is also important to ensure that the gluten-free diet is nutritionally complete and tailored to the individual's specific needs.


To recap, gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are both conditions that involve gluten sensitivity, but they have distinct differences in their causes, symptoms, and effects on the body. 

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder caused by a genetic predisposition, while gluten sensitivity does not involve an autoimmune response and its exact causes are still unclear. The primary treatment for both conditions is a strict gluten-free diet, but celiac disease can cause long-term complications such as nutrient deficiencies and an increased risk of certain cancers.

It is important to receive a proper diagnosis and management for gluten sensitivity and celiac disease. This may involve testing for antibodies or genetic markers, as well as regular follow-up testing and monitoring to assess the effectiveness of treatment and address any complications that may arise. Alternatively, advanced food sensitivity tests such as the AFIL test kits can also be helpful. Proper management can help to prevent long-term complications and improve quality of life.

If you are experiencing symptoms or suspect that you may have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, it is important to seek medical advice. A healthcare provider or dietitian can help to provide a proper diagnosis and develop a treatment plan that is tailored to your individual needs.

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Author: Dr. Sony S. | Panel Expert, Medical Doctor Dr. Sony is known for her medical articles, written with in-depth detail and accuracy owing to her vast medical knowledge and thorough research of each article. She completed her degree with multiple scholarships from Guangzhou Medical University and is a board-certified Clinical Doctor. She is currently working as a Medical Officer in the emergency department of a renowned hospital and continues to publish numerous medical papers and articles. Dr. Sony continues to lead the way in medical breakthroughs, unparalleled by her high level of detail, knowledge and passion for discovering new sciences and innovative healthcare treatments.

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