What’s the difference between gluten intolerant, sensitivity, and celiac?

Gluten free

*The following post isn’t meant to diagnose or treat any medical condition. It is 100% necessary and encouraged to see your doctor if you have any concerns about your own body.*

With the holidays merely hours away, our little family has three family dinners to attend this week. For each meal I have been lovingly contacted about concerns regarding gluten-free food; as a family member living with celiac disease, it’s hard having me over for dinner. With this in mind, I thought it might be helpful to break down what celiac disease is and how it differs from gluten sensitivity and intolerance.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Most people are familiar with wheat, and often people will say something like, “Oh, so you can’t have bread or pasta?” Exactly, along with about 1, 552 other things, like beer (which is fine with me, blech), most processed food, baked goods, and sauces, soups, and dressings. Gluten isn’t normally listed as “gluten” on a package; gluten is found in ingredients that are derivatives of wheat, barely, and rye. For example, “modified food starch” is often code for gluten.

What is gluten intolerance?

Gluten intolerance means the body has a negative, physiological response when it reads gluten in the digestive process. Intolerance can be broken down into two main categories:

  1. Gluten sensitivity
  2. Celiac disease

What’s confusing is these are two totally different conditions with similar symptoms.

  1. Gluten sensitivity:

Your  body is sensitive to gluten when it reads gluten as a foreign substance and tries to get rid of the gluten for you.  It’s analogous to when you get something in your eye. When there’s a object in your eye, something that shouldn’t be there, your eye starts to hurt and water, which is your body’s response in trying to push the object out. It’s uncomfortable and painful, but once it’s out, you feel better.

When your body is “gluten-sensitive,” your body reads gluten as something that shouldn’t be there and tries to expel it from you. Symptoms can include (but aren’t limited to) gas, bloating, diarrhea, fatigue, headache, stomach ache, and nausea. Some people may vomit (this is a protective response your body activates to get rid of the contaminant).

Just like you aren’t allergic to the pebble or eyelash you got in your eye, you aren’t necessarily allergic to gluten, but your body has a serious reaction nonetheless. It’s talking to you, letting you know something isn’t right. Gluten-sensitivity isn’t trendy. It’s important to listen to your body and be careful to limit or avoid gluten intake.

    2. Celiac Disease

Sick womanThis is a gastrointestinal disease wherein the body attacks itself, specifically the villi in the small intestine, when it reads gluten. Villi are little finger-like extensions that line the intestinal wall and help absorb the nutrients in food. When the villi are damaged and/or destroyed, the intestinal wall becomes analogous to a glass surface, where nutrients essentially slide on by rather than becoming absorbed.

Because the body attacks itself, celiac disease is classified as an auto-immune disorder. It’s genetic and sometimes won’t present itself until well into the adult years. I was finally diagnosed when I was 33 years old, though I had many symptoms for years before I was finally tested. In addition to constant stomach upset, as l listed in the gluten sensitivity section, I also battled skin rashes, interstitial cystitis (fancy name for painful, irritable bladder syndrome– essentially feels like a monthly bladder infection), headaches, and fatigue.

After getting negative results from food-allergy tests, my allergist had a “big picture” moment where we looked at all my medical conditions and symptoms as a comprehensive landscape, and he said, “Let’s test for celiac.” Bada-bing-bada-boom, the blood test revealed anti-gliadin IgA antibodies10 times higher than normal. In addition, I went to a dermatologist to have my skin rashes biopsied. Bada-bing-bada-boom, results came back as dermatitis herpetiformis. This is a fancy name for celiac disease manifested through the skin and confirmatory evidence that I officially have celiac disease.


Celiac disease is not trendy. Because the body can’t properly absorb nutrients, called malabsorbtion, serious medical issues can occur including (and not limited to) infertility, miscarriages, depression, and severe weight loss.

A gluten-free diet is only the first step and it isn’t easy. I can’t tell you how many times people said to me, “Oh, gluten free is SO easy now!” No. It isn’t. Celiac disease causes gut damage, which means there is a healing process that needs to happen in addition to avoiding more damage. Additionally, there are certain foods the body simply may not be able to process or read properly any more. For me, it took about a year of constant illness before I learned that I am severely sensitive to corn, almonds, cow’s milk, and casein. I also have to be very careful with eggs. It’s imperative for me to read every single ingredient list even when a giant “GLUTEN FREE!” is plastered all over the front of the package.

Cross-contamination is serious matter. The kitchen in which my food is prepared and the other foods surrounding my food have to be gluten free and other-food-allergy-free. I am just shy of being two years past my initial celiac diagnosis and I still get sick, mostly from cross-contamination.

Hence the reason why it’s hard to have me over for dinner. 🙂 Not impossible, just hard.

Each body is different. Every celiac case looks different. Every sensitivity is different. Gluten free dieting is a trendy cultural movement; it’s important to note that gluten isn’t necessarily evil. A lot of people can eat gluten and be just fine, and others can’t. That’s okay. Listen to and know your own body and feed it accordingly.


One thought on “What’s the difference between gluten intolerant, sensitivity, and celiac?

  1. adexoxox

    Leanne, thanks for sharing your personal voice on this. One thing that’s interesting is that my DNA does not state celiac, but my personal experience with gluten intolerance has all the intolerant symptoms you mentioned as well as the celiac symptoms, and several of the complications. I suspect years ago it was just something in my eye, but the build up over the years shows similar damage. I’ve just learned to be gracious with myself and really listen to my body. Sounds like you do the same. Thanks, again, for sharing!


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