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IBS, Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity - What's the Difference?

Posted by Sue Serre on

April and May are IBS and Celiac Awareness Months respectively, but what’s the difference?

When you have irritable bowel syndrome or IBS, your digestive symptoms can run the gamut from diarrhea to constipation, and probably include bloating, gas, and abdominal pain as well. IBS is a common disorder that affects the large intestine and is a chronic condition that will need to be managed as there is no known cause or cure - just management of symptoms. Most people with IBS experience worse or more-frequent signs and symptoms during periods of increased stress.

IBS is distinguished by the fact that it affects the colon (the large intestine). By contrast, Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity involve the small intestine and the immune system. With Celiac disease, there are screening and diagnostic tests available (eg. intestinal biopsy and antibody blood test). With IBS and gluten sensitivity, there are none.


The symptoms of Celiac disease and the symptoms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity are fairly similar to those of IBS. It's no surprise, therefore, that people have a tough time telling the three conditions apart. In fact, multiple studies have shown that many cases of diagnosed IBS are actually Celiac disease in disguise. In addition, some people who have been told they have IBS find relief when they eliminate gluten grains from their diets, even though they've tested negative for Celiac disease. (Gluten containing grains include wheat, spelt, rye, barley, Kamut, and oats – due to cross contamination). Screening for Celiac disease must occur before a gluten-free diet is implemented, since once a patient initiates a gluten-free diet, testing for celiac disease is no longer accurate.

When a person with Celiac disease consumes food that contains gluten, over time this damages the lining of the small intestine and inhibits its ability to absorb nutrients. This can lead to a variety of symptoms including chronic fatigue, brain fog, bone or joint pain, tingling in the hands or feet, and even depression or anxiety. A lifelong gluten free diet is the only known effective treatment for this condition.

Also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten sensitivity is neither an autoimmune reaction like Celiac disease nor an allergic reaction in which the immune system produces antibodies. As such, diagnosis of gluten sensitivity is usually made by ruling out other conditions. According to the acclaimed neurologist (author of Grain Brain) Dr. Perlmutter, as many as 30% of the population may be sensitive to gluten, without a specific involvement of the small intestine (Celiac disease). This sensitivity can relate to any number of problems from dementia to ADHD, skin disorders, joint pain and depression.

If you suffer from any of the issues mentioned above, why not consider going 100% gluten free and commit to three full months to get the best results. For more information and resources for going gluten-free go to the Canadian Celiac Association’s website at Celiac.ca (and of course come in and confide in The Hollow Willow!)