Few things interfere with your day quite as much as unexpected gastrointestinal problems, such as the cramps and diarrhea caused by leaky gut and gluten intolerance. Aside from these uncomfortable symptoms, the two have more differences than similarities. Leaky gut is a generic description of symptoms, while gluten intolerance is a specific reaction to gluten-containing products. Gluten intolerance does not damage the gut, but another gluten-related condition -- celiac disease -- causes a leaky gut.
The concept of leaky gut is directly related to the intestinal barrier, which is a layer of tissue that lines the inside of your intestines. This barrier has a complex and vital job: It transports nutrients into your bloodstream, while simultaneously blocking everything that might be harmful. The list of potentially harmful substances includes pieces of nutrients that are not properly digested, bacteria and toxins. The intestinal barrier must stay healthy and intact to keep you protected.
If you have a leaky gut, it means that the intestinal barrier is damaged and harmful substances have free access to your bloodstream. Leaky gut is not a medical diagnosis. It’s a term used to describe a set of symptoms that can have more than one possible cause. The symptoms usually begin as gastrointestinal problems, such as bloating, gas, cramps, diarrhea and abdominal aches and pains. As unwanted toxins get into your blood and travel through your body, they can cause a host of medical conditions that seem unrelated to the gut, including arthritis and joint pain. Some possible causes of leaky gut include medications, food allergies and inflammation.
Some people are susceptible to gluten and have a reaction when they eat gluten-containing foods. This type of intolerance is not a food allergy because it does not trigger the same immune response. If you're gluten intolerant, you may have a mild reaction and can still eat small amounts of gluten. Otherwise, the treatment is to keep it out of your diet, which means avoiding gluten’s natural sources: wheat, barley and rye. Gluten intolerance has similar gastrointestinal symptoms as leaky gut. It can also cause body-wide problems, but they’re more likely to be joint pain and foggy brain. The big difference is that gluten intolerance causes little to no damage to your small intestine, according to the University of New Hampshire.
Gluten intolerance used to be just another name for celiac disease, but now they’re recognized as different conditions, according to the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment. When people with celiac disease consume gluten, it triggers the immune system and antibodies attack where gluten was detected in your small intestine. As a result, the intestinal barrier is damaged. When you have celiac disease, you only have one treatment choice: You must avoid all sources of gluten. As long as the irritant does not enter your system, symptoms disappear and the body will repair intestinal damage.
Sandi Busch received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology, then pursued training in nursing and nutrition. She taught families to plan and prepare special diets, worked as a therapeutic support specialist, and now writes about her favorite topics – nutrition, food, families and parenting – for hospitals and trade magazines.