Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity – Explaining the Difference and Dispelling the Myths

Close up of ripe wheat ears

Today’s Op-ed: Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity – Explaining the Difference and Dispelling the Myths of the Gluten Sensitive

by Fine Cooks reader Jenni Davey

Gluten free diets are popular right now. Many people are choosing to espouse the gluten-free lifestyle, and they are feeling the benefits. However, with the glut of gluten-free advocates comes a corresponding glut of people tossing around the word ‘celiac’ and the phrase ‘gluten sensitivity’. There seems to be a good deal of misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding these conditions. Many cannot fathom the difference between celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, while others dismiss both as mere ‘funny tummies’ or even ‘faddy crazes’. This short guide should help to dismiss some of the myths surrounding celiac disease, and make clear the differences between a celiac, someone who is gluten sensitive, and someone who is neither but could benefit from cutting down on gluten nonetheless.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which the villi (small tendrils which coat the interior of the intestines and aid digestion) are attacked by the body when the person with celiac consumes gluten. The body ,in these cases, experiences the absorption of gluten proteins as an external attack, and responds by sending the immune system in mob-handed. This results in damage to the villi. Without the villi, nutrients cannot be absorbed into the bloodstream. This can bring on all sorts of nasty complications such as malnourishment, osteoporosis, thyroid disease, and even cancer. Luckily, the problem is easily solved through simply cutting out gluten and replacing it with the kind of delicious alternatives found on websites like this. If you think you may have celiac disease, there are many recognizable symptoms to be aware of. Some of these include:

  • Frequent indigestion
  • Stomach pains
  • Bloating
  • Lethargy
  • Exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Weight loss
  • A lack of appetite
  • Tingling sensations or numbness in the extremities
  • Sudden diarrhea
  • Swelling (edema) of the limbs
Gluten Sensitivity

Gluten sensitivities differ from celiac disease in that they do not involve an autoimmune reaction when the body tries to digest gluten. Gluten sensitivity has only just been recognized by the medical community as a legitimate condition. Some more “old school” doctors still doubt that it is a real thing. However, anyone with non-celiac gluten difficulties will know just how debilitating and uncomfortable gluten sensitivity can be. The causes of gluten sensitivity are unknown, and still being investigated. The University of Maryland Medical Center has ventured to hypothesize that gluten sensitivity involves an immune reaction of a different sort to that involved in celiac disease. This hypothesis remains unconfirmed, but is gaining traction in the medical community. Others suggest that such sensitivities are caused by poor digestive development resulting from deficient or unhealthy diets in childhood. This provides added incentive for parents to start good nutritional habits early. Given the relative ‘newcomer’ status of gluten sensitivity and intolerance to the medical canon, there is as yet no definitive way to test for it. However, those who have tested negative for celiac disease, and feel that their body may react poorly to gluten, may want to try eliminating gluten from their diet. If symptoms alleviate when the patient is gluten-free, it seems likely that they may suffer from gluten sensitivity. Those who suffer from gluten sensitivity have described a varying range of symptoms, including:

  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches and/or migraines
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue, lethargy, and exhaustion
  • Irritability

Many of these symptoms correspond to those of celiac disease and are treated in much the same manner (100% elimination of gluten from the diet). However, there are distinct conditions into which much research is still being done.

Eliminating Misconceptions of the Gluten Sensitive

It is an unfortunate fact that, despite being officially accepted as a medical condition, gluten sensitivity is still treated with eye-rolls and doubt by many. It has been blamed on the ‘Nocebo Effect’, and widely dismissed both by the popular press and some medical professionals. This does nothing to alter the fact that gluten sensitivity makes life distinctly uncomfortable for thousands of people. These are people who endure lackluster concern for their symptoms and are often told that it is ‘all in their heads’. Celiacs get more credibility and sympathy for the symptoms, but still have to suffer from a condition which is not widely understood by the general public. Luckily, both conditions are easily treatable through the adoption of a 100% gluten-free diet. This comes with plenty of other significant benefits, but it is nonetheless disappointing to have one’s genuine medical issues thought of as nothing more than a ‘fad diet’. Hopefully, the impact of understanding these conditions better will lead  to greater sympathy and tolerance for the gluten-intolerant.

Jenni Davey is a former healthcare worker, who specialized in helping people improve their diets and fitness. When motherhood beckoned, she switched her attention to writing about the topics she was passionate about and now freelances full time.  For more information on celiac disease, symptoms and resources, please see The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. For all celiac and gluten sensitivity concerns, please consult a medical professional.

Post a Comment