Celiac disease is one of the most misunderstood conditions out there. The majority of people confuse it with a wheat allergy because allergies are something they understand and they don’t actually know what gluten is. And let’s face it – not many people who have Celiac disease knew what the difference was before they got their diagnosis.
Gluten vs. Wheat
While everyone knows what wheat is, there’s a great deal of confusion about what gluten is and where it comes from. Gluten is actually a type of protein found in wheat, barley and rye. This means that people who can’t tolerate gluten, like those with Celiac disease, can’t eat anything that’s made with or that has come into contact with any of these grains. Of course it means that people with Celiac disease and people with wheat allergies both can’t eat wheat, but that’s about as far as the similarities go.
The Allergy Conundrum
Another thing that can add to the confusion surrounding Celiac disease is that many people think of any reaction to a food or other substance as an allergy. In fact an allergy is a very specific type of reaction by the immune system to a perceived threat. Celiac disease also involves and inappropriate immune system response, but it affects the body very differently from the way an allergic reaction does.
The allergic reaction can be triggered by many different types of things. Pollen, shellfish, latex and peanuts are all common allergens, as is wheat. When a person comes into contact with a substance that they are allergic to, their immune system produces antibodies to try and combat that substance just like they would a bacterial invader. These antibodies, in turn, trigger the production of histamines which lead to the all too familiar itching, and respiratory symptoms of allergies.
In a Celiac sufferer, however, the immune system malfunctions in a slightly different way. When their immune system detects gluten in their body, it directs the action of antibodies towards the digestive tract itself. For Celiac sufferers, their immune system actually does damage to their intestines, leaving them with both unpleasant immediate symptoms and long term complications that develop because they are unable to absorb nutrients from their food.
Short vs. Long Term Problems
Another main difference between allergies and Celiac symptoms is that allergic reactions are immediate but generally have no long term effects. However, in extreme cases, allergic reactions can be immediately life threatening.
Celiac disease, on the other hand, may or may not cause immediate symptoms. In fact, some Celiac sufferers have no digestive symptoms at all, but the damage is still being done to their intestines. This damage can lead to many more serious medical problems including malnutrition and the development of osteoporosis, depression, anxiety, bone and joint pain and fatigue.