Gluten Intolerance vs. Celiac: Is There a Difference?

Gluten intolerance and Celiac disease are often used interchangeably, but the reality is that they are quite different in how they impact the body.

Eating a healthy diet is essential to maintaining good health, but it is also important to understand how your body reacts to specific foods.


Gluten is a molecule that some people can have a hard time with. Below is a closer look at two of the more common issues individuals may have with gluten and what they entail.

What is Gluten Intolerance?

Food intolerances are conditions where an individual has a difficult time digesting a particular kind of food or specific molecule within the food. The inability to digest the food can result in gastrointestinal problems such as gas, bloating, nausea, constipation, and abdominal pain.


Many people confuse food intolerance with a food allergy. Still, the reality is that food intolerance is very different from a food allergy.An intolerance typically only has gastrointestinal involvement.


Meanwhile, an allergy such as a wheat allergy would result in an allergic reaction with more serious symptoms, including anaphylaxis, hives, difficulty breathing, and other life-threatening conditions.


One of the most common food intolerances is lactose intolerance which makes it difficult for individuals to digest dairy products properly. While the most common, there are many molecules the body can have trouble digesting, including gluten.


Gluten intolerance is estimated to impact about 6% of the United States population, resulting in a large number of people having difficulty digesting wheat.

What Are the Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance?

When it comes to food sensitivities and intolerance, there are a number of different symptoms that can arise. Two individuals with the same sensitivity can experience it in very different ways.


This is increasingly true for gluten intolerances. One person may find themselves having more gas after eating wheat, while others may experience abdominal pain.


Some of the more common symptoms of gluten intolerance include bloating, GI discomfort, diarrhea, and other digestive issues after consuming foods high in gluten. Some other symptoms that can arise include joint pain, headache, and a potential difficulty concentrating.

What Is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which the body sees gluten as a pathogen or disease-causing agent. Because of this misinterpretation of gluten, the immune system creates antibodies that are able to specifically target the gluten molecule and initiate inflammation.


When food is consumed, it travels through your esophagus into the stomach, where high acidity and digestive enzymes help to break apart your food. After reaching the stomach, the food continues to be broken down by digestive enzymes until it is small enough to be absorbed.


The food travels through the small intestines, where nutrients are absorbed into the body. Small protruding structures called villi are located throughout the small intestines and help to increase surface area and improve nutrient absorption.


When a person with Celiac disease eats gluten, the body responds by coordinating inflammation. This inflammation typically occurs in the small intestines. If left unnoticed, consistent small intestine inflammation can contribute to intestinal damage of villi and potentially contribute to malabsorption and malnutrition.

What Are the Symptoms of Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is typically a genetic autoimmune disorder that an individual has to deal with throughout their life. While estimates suggest that only 1% of the U.S.population has Celiac disease, it is thought that a majority of individuals are misdiagnosed or go completely undiagnosed.


Some common digestive symptoms include stool irregularity, bloating, abdominal pain, and nausea.If the inflammation is persistent and goes unnoticed, it can contribute to malabsorption issues like anemia, bone loss, and weight loss.


Symptoms of celiac disease can also extend to other bodily systems. Some of these symptoms include a skin rash known as dermatitis herpetiformis, joint pain, headache, and fatigue. Because celiac disease primarily presents as extreme stomach pain and indigestion, it can be misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS),which has similar symptoms.

What’s the Difference Between Gluten Intolerance and Celiac Disease?

The main difference between gluten intolerance and Celiac disease is the body systems that are involved. Food sensitivities and intolerances tend to only impact the digestive tract.In these instances consuming foods with these molecules can result in temporary and relatively non-severe symptoms like indigestion, headache, or brain fog.


Celiac disease is quite different in that it causes the activation of the immune response.Individuals with celiac disease endure an autoimmune response when gluten is eaten, where the body’s own immune system starts attacking itself.


The symptoms of celiac disease can resemble that of gluten intolerance but come as a result of excessive inflammation and the body initiating an immune response.

How Can You Test for Celiac Disease or Gluten Intolerance?

Food allergy and sensitivity can be difficult to diagnose. People come into contact with all sorts of foods. Understanding or determining which food or molecule is causing your issue is not always easy. Many people attempt to utilize a food journal to help them notice patterns, but this can take time to work effectively.


Laboratory testing is an efficient means of getting the answers you need in a timely manner. Below isa closer look at some of the common tests that can be given to help test for celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or any other food allergy or sensitivity you may have.

Blood Test

A blood test is an excellent means of determining whether or not an individual has celiac disease. There are two main tests that can help make a celiac disease diagnosis, and these are serologic tests and genetic testing.


Serology testing is a test that is utilized to detect a specific antibody. In the case of Celiac disease, a gluten serology test looks for specific antibodies that are known to interact with gluten — and are known to be found in individuals with celiac disease.


Genetic testing can also help strengthen a celiac disease diagnosis. There are two genes that have been found to have an association with the development of celiac disease.These genes are HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8. While these genes are not confirmation of celiac disease, they do predispose an individual to develop Celiac disease.

Skin Prick Test

A skin prick test isa common test utilized to identify potential allergies. The test is performed utilizing a solution with a particular allergen and a small lancet to puncture the skin. If the area around the puncture exhibits inflammation, it is inferred that the body is having a reaction to that given allergy.


A skin prick test is often done with many different allergens and sometimes different testing sites on the body at once to get a thorough understanding of potential allergies.

Skin Biopsy

One of the potential reactions to gluten is the formation of a skin rash. A skin rash after consuming gluten is not enough to diagnose a gluten-based reaction, but a biopsy of the area can be taken to test for specific antibodies.

Intestinal Biopsy

One of the most common symptoms of Celiac disease is the inflammation and associated intestinal damage caused by gluten. When these tissues are inflamed, there can be important biomarkers within the tissues that can help to diagnose Celiac disease.


Similar to a skin biopsy, an intestinal endoscopy and biopsy can be utilized to test for specific antibodies that can help with a Celiac disease diagnosis.

Elimination Diet

An elimination diet consists of restricting your diet and slowly reintroducing foods one at a time to determine what food is causing a particular problem. This technique can help identify a problematic food reaction, but it can take a lot of time and energy to conduct.


There are a number of different elimination diets out there, but one of the most popular is called the FODMAP diet. The FODMAP diet is an elimination-style diet that aims to avoid foods that commonly cause digestive issues.


Specifically, the diet reduces the consumption of foods high in fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols which can be difficult for your digestion. Before trying any elimination diet, make sure that you consult with a dietician or your healthcare provider to ensure that it is right for you.


Eating a gluten-free diet can take some getting used to. However, thanks to rising awareness, many gluten-free food options are now available.

The Bottom Line

Both gluten intolerance and Celiac disease represent an adverse reaction to gluten. Intolerance and sensitivity tend to only impact the digestive system, while Celiac disease causes an immune reaction that can impact a number of different body systems.


Both symptoms tend to resemble one another, and laboratory testing is one of the only ways to differentiate one from another.


For your west coast lab testing needs, consider utilizing OptiHealth. With a commitment to quality and accuracy, you can put your trust in OptiHealth. 





Food Intolerance: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment Options| Cleveland Clinic


Gluten Intolerance: Symptoms, Test, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity | Cleveland Clinic


Celiac Disease: Fast Facts |


Celiac Genes | National Celiac Association