Do I have IBS or Coeliac Disease?

Diarrhea, constipation, or both. Bloating. Gas. Abdominal pain. These are common symptoms among people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and coeliac disease. But don’t be fooled by the symptoms because that’s where the similarities end. If you fail to unearth the underlying reason for these symptoms, the effects to you health-wise can be disastrous.

IBS is actually a good place to start to question whether you have coeliac disease or not because studies found that 4% to 10% of IBS patients actually have coeliac disease. Because the symptoms are very much alike, coeliac disease is often initially missed or misdiagnosed until the patient starts feeling its long-term effects which include severe fatigue, osteoporosis, weight loss, anemia, infertility, neuropathy (damaged nerves) and even seizure. It also increases your risk of cancer!

Bigger differences, bigger troubles

IBS involves the large intestine, while coeliac disease causes damage to your small intestine.

IBS symptoms are triggered when the large intestine (also known as the colon) gets irritated and reacts. When it reacts, people suffering from IBS may experience a host of symptoms that range from mildly-irritating here-now, gone-tomorrow signs, to nasty daily bowel problems that can prevent them from enjoying their life to the fullest. IBS is inconvenient especially if you have an active lifestyle. While its effects are unpleasant, and its lingering symptoms of chronic constipation and diarrhea can eventually cause hemorrhoids, IBS does not damage the digestive tract, nor does it increase your risk of colon cancer.

Coeliac disease, on the other hand, is a genetic, autoimmune disease. Its symptoms get triggered when you eat foods that contain gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley and rye). Your immune system, which mistakes gluten as a harmful and foreign substance, attacks the gluten when it gets to your small intestine, and in the process of attacking it, damages small, fingerlike projections in your small intestine called villi. Your villi make it easier for your body to absorb nutrients from food. As your villi become collateral damage to the war that the immune system wages against gluten, your body will have trouble absorbing nutrients. So individuals diagnosed with coeliac disease may experience symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, bloating, gas and abdominal pain, which puts them at high risk for malnutrition.

The bigger and more dangerous part is malnourishment. People with extended, undetected coeliac disease will suffer from other symptoms like weight loss, anemia from iron deficiency, arthritis and even osteoporosis (or loss of bone quality and density), infertility, lack of menstruation, recurrent miscarriage, nerve problems, headache, constant tiredness, depression, irritability or mood changes, neurological problems which include poor balance and seizures, headaches, numbness or tingling in the leg, dental enamel defects or tooth discolouration, sores on lips or tongue and other signs of vitamin deficiency, such as scaly skin or hyperkeratosis (from lack of vitamin A), itchy, painful skin rash (dermatitis herpetiformis), or bleeding gums or bruising easily (from lack of vitamin K).

Worse, you could be at greater risk for cancers of the mouth, pharynx and esophagus and even small bowel lymphoma, a cancer of the small intestine.

If you are long-suffering from IBS and the symptoms do not seem to improve, and you have additional tell-tale signs that include skin rash, fatigue, weight loss and headaches, make sure you consult a healthcare professional who can help you understand what the underlying problems are and give you prompt treatment for your condition.

Profiles and Triggers

It is estimated that 5% to 20% of the population suffer from IBS. Most are young, usually under 50 years of age. Twice as many women are affected than men and most have a family history of IBS. It can be triggered by hormonal changes, which is why more women are affected by IBS than men. Women diagnosed with IBS also find their symptoms are heightened during or around their menstrual periods.

IBS can also be triggered by muscle contractions within your large intestines, changes in your intestinal bacteria, inflammation, infection, certain foods and during periods of increased stress.

While only 1% of the population are known to have coeliac disease, the profile of sufferers varies because the cause of coeliac disease is not yet completely known, except that genetics play a role. Although coeliac disease is most common among people of northern European descent, it affects 1 out of every 100 Australians. Coeliac patients vary in age, and a period of severe stress, pregnancy or infection is a common risk factor among some people. What is definite is that people with coeliac disease are permanently intolerant to gluten.


There is no known cure for both IBS and coeliac disease. Both, however, can be managed through dietary and lifestyle changes. Coeliac disease is often missed or misdiagnosed because the symptoms can be wrongly attributed to other common intestinal issues.

If you suspect you have coeliac disease, do not immediately stop your gluten intake as it may skew your test results and make it even more difficult for your healthcare provider to diagnose whether you have IBS, non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, or celiac disease. Also, many people assume that simply stopping your consumption of gluten is the key, but it isn’t that easy. Many food products contain gluten and especially with prepared foods, gluten may not even be listed as an ingredient. The best thing to do is to see a healthcare professional to determine your condition. If you are diagnosed with coeliac disease, it is best to see a dietitian who can teach you how to avoid gluten while ensuring that you follow a nutritious diet.

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Book an appointment with an accredited dietitian or nutritionist by phone on (07) 3071-7405 between 8am and 6pm Monday to Friday or send us an enquiry. Alternatively, find out how our dietitians and nutritionists can help you improve your Gut and Bowel Health.