Gluten is a major part of tons of tasty foods, ranging from bread to pasta to cookies and more. But, lots of people have difficulty digesting gluten due to its naturally starchy and sticky nature.
With how common gluten sensitivity is, chances are you’ve experienced at least some of the symptoms of gluten sensitivity at some point in your life without realizing you have a mild gluten allergy. On the other hand, those with complete gluten intolerance have much more severe symptoms that are hard to miss.
Gluten Intolerance vs. Gluten Allergy
First, let’s clear something important up. Gluten intolerance is not the same thing as a gluten allergy. Gluten intolerance is known as celiac disease, which is a type of autoimmune disorder. In a nutshell, celiac disease means your immune system responds poorly to gluten, which is one of the key compounds in bread products containing rye, wheat, or barley.
When someone with celiac disease eats gluten, their immune system destroys small villi, which are microscopic parts of the small intestine that help to absorb nutrients. Therefore, those with celiac disease experience much more severe symptoms compared to people with gluten allergies or gluten sensitivities, whether that sensitivity comes from genetics or some other biological factor.
Gluten Sensitivity Symptoms
More people experience the symptoms of gluten sensitivity. The exact cause of gluten sensitivity isn’t understood. But it is important to recognize these symptoms so you can adjust your diet if necessary.
Let’s break down the different symptoms between these two reactions now.
One of the most common gluten sensitivity symptoms is bloating. Bloating is characterized by a “full stomach” feeling that stretches to an uncomfortable point. It may also involve excessive gas. If you feel constantly over-full, even though you’ve only eaten a little bread, it may be because of gluten sensitivity.
Constipation and Indigestion
Similarly, those with gluten sensitivity frequently experience constipation and indigestion. This may be because your body responds poorly to digesting gluten before trying to pass the product from your digestive system.
Those with more serious gluten sensitivity might experience abdominal pain or severe discomfort. Abdominal pain could be related to your abdominal and digestive muscles twisting and turning in an attempt to digest gluten unsuccessfully.
Either way, it’s not a bad idea to visit a doctor if you experience repeated abdominal pain so they can check for celiac disease.
If you have a gluten sensitivity, you might regularly experience fatigue after eating wheat, barley, or rye. The exact reasons why fatigue is linked to gluten sensitivity are not known, but it may be because your body does not properly digest the carbohydrates inherent in bread products.
Carbohydrates are your body’s primary source of energy. If you eat a bunch of bread but don’t get enough energy from the meal, your body could feel sluggish or slow since it essentially ate a bunch of nutritionally empty food. It’s like skipping a meal, but worse.
Alongside the other minor symptoms described above, gluten sensitivity could cause you to feel nausea if your indigestion continues and you keep eating more bread products.
Celiac Disease Symptoms
Celiac disease is an immune response reaction much more serious than regular gluten sensitivity. So, its symptoms are more varied and often more severe for many people.
Indigestion and Related Symptoms
In addition to the celiac disease-specific symptoms, you might also experience common indigestion symptoms seen with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. These include:
- Bloating and gas
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Stomach pain or discomfort
- Nausea and vomiting
You might be able to tell whether you are at risk for celiac disease if these symptoms become particularly painful or if they don’t stop even after not eating gluten products for a while.
Celiac disease might cause you to develop anemia. This is a condition when you don’t have enough red blood cells to carry enough oxygen to all of your body’s tissues. It’s usually accompanied by excessive fatigue since your body isn’t getting the oxygen it needs to work properly. Long-term anemia can be dangerous if neglected.
Celiac disease is also linked to feelings of depression. This may be related to the fatigue side effects mentioned above. Or it could have something to do with your body not receiving enough adequate nutrition from your meals.
However, celiac disease usually only induces temporary depression. If you only feel depressed shortly after eating gluten products, celiac disease may be the culprit.
By destroying the villi of your small intestines, celiac disease can also lead to osteoporosis. Your intestines will have a harder time absorbing calcium and other vital nutrients from your other food. Over time, your bones may lose their structural integrity and suffer from osteoporosis, which is characterized by weak bones and joint pain.
In a broader picture, celiac disease can lead to a wide range of nutritional deficiencies if enough of your villi are destroyed in short order. Your villi may regenerate given enough time, but you have to prevent your immune system from attacking them as they try to heal by avoiding eating gluten products.
If you have celiac disease, you might also experience headaches after eating gluten products. This is likely due to your immune system going into overdrive and kicking up a “sick” response, making you feel tired, lightheaded, or just that your head hurts.
The symptom differences between gluten intolerance and celiac disease are drastic enough that you should be able to identify which of the two you are suffering from after a short while. When in doubt, remember that you should speak to a medical professional if you have questions and want to track the source of your discomfort so you can take actions to relieve it.
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Livingood
Dr. Livingood, yes that is his real name, is the Founder of drlivingood.com natural health site and also the founder of Livingood Daily. He has authored two Amazon #1 Best Selling Books Livingood Daily and Make Food Simple. In 2007 after nearly losing his father to health conditions, Dr. Livingood was prompted to find a health care system to save his father’s life. Where medicine failed Dr. Livingood discovered solutions that got his father off 15 medications and overcame major heart and autoimmune conditions. As a Doctor of Natural Medicine and DC he now serves thousands of people in Morrisville, NC, and millions through his online and media presence. Dr. Livingood, his wife Jessica, and three kids spend their lives leading people nationally and locally in the hopes that others can experience real health.