Here’s what we’re going to cover
- Where Does This Idea Come From, That Celiac Disease is Worse?
- The Facts About the Severity of Celiac Disease
- Why Haven’t We Heard About This Before?
- How Bad Can Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerance Be?
- Where Does Celiac Disease Fits In the Spectrum of Gluten Intolerance?
- Why Is This Important?
Where Does This Idea Come From, That Celiac Disease is Worse?
People who are diagnosed with celiac disease are often very sick. Why? Because traditionally doctors haven’t bothered testing for celiac disease until patients are very sick. So of course, people associate celiac disease with being very sick. But it starts much earlier than that.
The Facts About the Severity of Celiac Disease
How do we know that celiac disease really isn’t any worse than non-celiac gluten sensitivity? It’s because large studies of people with celiac disease have come to this conclusion. These studies have taken into account everyone who has been diagnosed with celiac disease, not just the really sick people. And what they found will surprise you.
Studies have shown that when you look at the entire population of people who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, about half of them were classified as asymptomatic.1 This means that they weren’t super sick. In fact, they didn’t even know that they had a problem, much less a problem with gluten.
Why Haven’t We Heard About This Before?
Most people don’t know about this because it doesn’t make for a very good story. When people are totally fine, with a disease that isn’t currently causing any symptoms that they can feel, then there aren’t too many people who are particularly interested in hearing about it.
Yes, it does increase your risk factors for a bunch of health problems developing sooner or later, like osteoporosis, cancer, other autoimmune diseases, digestive problems, and a bunch of other things. But for many people that’s just an inconvenient truth, something to worry about later.
How Bad Can Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerance Be?
Non-Celiac gluten sensitivity can be really sick. I’ve seen many patients who’ve spent a lot of time in the hospital with severe pain or fatigue, and have been so sick that they can’t function.2 Those patients were scanned and scoped and had lots of tests done, and they never came up positive for celiac disease.
Only later did we find out that they had a non-celiac gluten intolerance. They stopped eating gluten and just like that they were normal and healthy again. Their pain disappeared, their energy returned to normal, they regained their health and they went on with their lives, minus the gluten.
So I’ve seen firsthand that non-celiac patients can be just as bad as bad cases of celiac disease.
Where Does Celiac Disease Fits In the Spectrum of Gluten Intolerance?
If celiac disease isn’t necessarily any worse than non-celiac gluten intolerance, then how do we think of these two things? In order to help you place these into context, I’d like you to think of celiac disease as a symptom, not a cause.
What I mean by that is that I want you to remember that celiac disease is an autoimmune condition.3 It’s an autoimmune problem that damages the small intestine, and it’s triggered by gluten. When you stop eating gluten, you heal up and the autoimmune problem resolves.
Gluten is the cause, not celiac disease. And gluten can cause lots of problems, not just celiac disease. This is what happens in non-celiac gluten sensitivity (or non-celiac gluten intolerance). You get other symptoms, but you don’t get the autoimmune problem of celiac disease.
So think of celiac disease as one of the long list of symptoms that you can get when you have a reaction to gluten. Here’s a small portion of that list, and notice that celiac disease is on that list.
Why Is This Important?
The reason that I feel that this is such an important message is because I want people to understand that non-celiac gluten sensitivity can be very severe, and can cause just as many problems as bad cases of celiac disease.
Over the years I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me that they were glad that they didn’t have celiac disease. They were happy about it because they believed that it meant that they didn’t have to take it as seriously or be as careful about avoiding gluten.
Unable to convince them otherwise, or maybe I couldn’t get past the other messaging that they had heard about non-celiac gluten sensitivity not being as significant as celiac disease, it has pained me to watch them suffer from all kinds of health problems because they continued to eat gluten.
I just want people to be healthy. And I hope that watching this will help you to live a healthier life. If that happens, then I’ll be happy.
Do you think that you might have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity?
Dr. Wangen is the founder and medical director of the IBS Treatment Center, the award winning author of two books, and a nationally recognized speaker on digestive disorders. He has been on ABC, NBC, and Fox as well as public radio, and was named one of Seattle’s Top Doctors by Seattle Magazine.