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Field of wheat with the overlay of text saying 'how do I know? Celiac disease vs. wheat intolerance" Washington state naturopathic gastroenterologist Dr. Buckle explores the differences


People often ask me what the difference is between celiac disease and gluten or wheat intolerance/sensitivity. It is a good question, and can be confusing, so I would like to give some basic information regarding the difference. Of course, if this is something you are struggling with and need support, please make an appointment to see me, and we can discuss what might be appropriate for your particular situation.

Celiac disease and gluten or wheat intolerance are both conditions that can cause digestive problems after eating wheat. The reaction can be in response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, or to the carbohydrates found in wheat, called fructans. However, they are distinct conditions with different causes, symptoms, and treatments.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease. This means that when someone with celiac disease eats gluten, their immune system makes antibodies against a part of the protein, which it then mistakes for a similar protein in the GI tract, and it attacks the lining of the small intestine. Eventually, this can lead to severe nutritional deficiencies, and associated problems such as anemia and osteoporosis. The treatment for celiac disease requires following a gluten-free diet for life. This means avoiding foods such as bread, pasta, cereal, and beer. Some people can be so sensitive that they must also avoid cross contamination from gluten, including using dedicated gluten free cookware and food prep surfaces. Some people may also need to replete nutrient deficiencies. Celiac disease can present with a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • bloating
  • abdominal pain
  • fatigue
  • blood in the stool

So then, how is wheat or gluten intolerance/sensitivity different? While they also involve a poor response to wheat, they are not autoimmune diseases. As mentioned, the sensitivity or intolerance can occur in response to either the protein gluten, or the carbohydrate fructans. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity can also involve an antibody response, but it is not an autoimmune response. (The antibodies are against the gluten only, not against the GI tract). A wheat sensitivity in response to the fructans, involves poor digestion and absorption of these carbohydrates. People with these types of sensitivities can experience symptoms similar to celiac disease, although are usually less severe, and don’t usually include blood in the stool, but can include:

  • bloating
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • gas

People with gluten or wheat intolerance may initially benefit from following a restrictive diet, and later be able to add wheat back to their diets.  The only way to know for sure if you are dealing with Celiac disease or gluten/ wheat intolerance is to be examined and tested by a doctor for a diagnosis. I am a naturopathic doctor specializing in gastroenterology, and in a unique position to help you alleviate your symptoms from a whole person perspective. I perform a variety of functional diagnostic panels to get to the root of your discomfort, and also have specific nutritional protocols for you to follow based on your individual situation. Although restrictive diets are required in some cases, I believe they should be used judiciously and in cooperation with your medical team.

Natural medicine can work very well to improve GI health. Please contact Dr. Heather Buckle ND, FABNO if you have questions about integrative solutions for any gastrointestinal issues you may have. If you live in Washington state and would like to learn more about Dr. Buckle’s naturopathic approach to your wellness, please call (206) 643-2239 or CLICK HERE to schedule a consultation.

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