What is the difference between coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity?

Karolina Baker, Alphabiolabs

By Karolina Baker, Health Testing Specialist at AlphaBiolabs
Last reviewed: 09/05/2023

In this article, we look at the difference between coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity, and why it is important not to confuse the two.
Table of contents
  • What is coeliac disease?
  • What are the symptoms of coeliac disease?
  • What is gluten sensitivity?
  • What are the symptoms of gluten sensitivity?
  • What is the difference between coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity?
  • What is the difference between gluten sensitivity and gluten intolerance?
  • How can I find out if I have coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity?

What is coeliac disease?

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease that develops over time because of a sensitivity to gluten; a protein found in certain cereal grains including wheat, rye, and barley, and commonly used in food products such as cereal, bread, and pasta.

When a person with coeliac disease eats gluten, this causes the body’s immune system to attack its own tissue, causing damage to the gut lining and preventing the body from adequately absorbing nutrients from food.

If left untreated, it can lead to severe complications, which can negatively impact on a person’s quality of life.

Coeliac disease affects around 1 in 100 people in the UK, but only 30% of these people are diagnosed, leading experts to believe that there are many more people suffering with it.

This is because milder cases can go undiagnosed or be misdiagnosed as other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

More information about coeliac disease can be found at https://www.coeliac.org.uk/.

What are the symptoms of coeliac disease?

Some of the most common symptoms of coeliac disease include:

  • An itchy rash (dermatitis herpetiformis)
  • Anaemia
  • Bloating and flatulence
  • Constipation or hard stools
  • Diarrhoea or loose stools
  • Disorders that affect co-ordination, balance, and speech (ataxia)
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea, feeling sick and vomiting
  • Nerve damage (peripheral neuropathy)
  • Stomach aches and cramping
  • Tiredness (fatigue) due to not getting enough nutrients from food (malnutrition)
  • Unintentional weight loss

What is gluten sensitivity?

Gluten sensitivity – sometimes called non-coeliac gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance – is a condition whereby a person may experience similar symptoms to those of a person with coeliac disease, after eating gluten.

However, unlike with coeliac disease, it is not clear how the immune system might be involved with gluten sensitivity.

There also does not appear to be any damage to the gut lining in people who have a sensitivity to gluten.

Gluten sensitivity can be managed by removing gluten from the diet. However, if you are experiencing symptoms that could indicate gluten sensitivity, it is important to speak to your GP for further guidance.

This is because coeliac disease – a more serious condition – can be misdiagnosed as gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance, as the two share similar symptoms.

What are the symptoms of gluten sensitivity?

Some of the common symptoms of gluten sensitivity include:

  • Abdominal/stomach pain
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue

What is the difference between coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity?

Even though coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity (sometimes called non-coeliac gluten sensitivity) can present with similar symptoms, it is important to understand the difference between the two.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease that typically runs in families, with symptoms that can range from mild to severe depending on the person.

When a person with coeliac disease eats gluten, this triggers an immune response that causes the body’s immune system to attack its own tissue.

Over time, this results in damage to the gut lining that impairs the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food.

Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, sometimes called gluten intolerance, occurs when gluten is consumed but, although the symptoms are very similar to that of coeliac disease, the effects on the body are different.

In a person with gluten sensitivity, the body produces different antibodies to gluten than it does in individuals with coeliac disease. There also does not appear to be any damage to the gut lining in people with a gluten sensitivity.

Unlike with coeliac disease, there is currently no specific test for non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, and it is not entirely clear what causes the condition. It is usually diagnosed by excluding a diagnosis of coeliac disease or a wheat allergy (when your body produces antibodies to the proteins found in wheat).

It is possible, however, to test for coeliac disease, which can be a more serious condition.

For more information, see ‘How can I find out if I have coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity?’

What is the difference between gluten sensitivity and gluten intolerance?

Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity is sometimes referred to as gluten intolerance, and vice versa.

Both terms are commonly used to describe a condition whereby a person experiences uncomfortable symptoms after consuming gluten.

However, while the two terms are often used to describe the same symptoms, non-coeliac gluten sensitivity is the more medically accurate way to refer to this condition.

How can I find out if I have coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity?

If you are experiencing symptoms that could indicate coeliac disease or a sensitivity to gluten, it is recommended that you speak to your GP who will be able to advise on next steps for testing and diagnosis.

A diagnosis of gluten sensitivity can usually be made where coeliac disease or a wheat allergy have been ruled out. This is because there is currently no specific test available for gluten sensitivity.

A home test for coeliac disease can be useful to either confirm or rule out the possibility of coeliac disease, before visiting your GP.

The results may also help you to secure a diagnosis more quickly from healthcare professionals.

An AlphaBiolabs Genetic Coeliac Disease Test is a fast, accurate and reliable way of finding out whether you carry the genes linked to coeliac disease, with only a cheek swab required.

The test uses Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) typing to confirm or rule out the potential of developing coeliac disease by evaluation six DNA markers for the HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 genes.

You can order a test online now for £99, with results available in 4-5 days.

Buy a coeliac test

Order your Genetic Coeliac Disease Test direct from our award-winning, accredited laboratory.

Karolina Baker, AlphaBiolabs

Karolina Baker

Health Testing Specialist at AlphaBiolabs

Karolina joined AlphaBiolabs in 2021 and holds the role of Health Testing Specialist.

As well as overseeing a range of health tests, Karolina plays an active role in the research and development of the company’s latest health test offerings.

Before joining AlphaBiolabs, Karolina worked as an Associate Practitioner at Mid-Cheshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and as a research assistant at the Turner Laboratory, within the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health at The University of Manchester.

Karolina’s main scientific interests include clinical genomics and genetic diagnostics. Her qualifications include a BSc in Molecular Biology and an MSc in Genomic Medicine.

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