If you have a health concern about gluten and you eat the protein, you might wonder: How long does it take to get gluten out of your system? In people without a sensitivity, it may take two to three days for gluten to be fully digested. But, if you're gluten-sensitive or have celiac disease, it may take longer.
Gluten is a complex protein found in most grains and has the potential to make people sick who have certain conditions, says Elena A. Ivanina, DO, a gastroenterologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, including:
- Celiac disease, an autoimmune condition where gluten triggers an immune response causing gut inflammation.
- Wheat allergy, an immunoglobulin E‐mediated reaction to wheat that causes typical allergic symptoms such as itching, skin rash and anaphylaxis. (IgE is a type of antibody.)
- Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a condition where gut symptoms and symptoms outside of the gut are triggered by gluten in the absence of celiac disease and wheat allergy.
Gluten Transit Time
How long after eating gluten do symptoms start? This may vary from person to person, but it's important to know that the time it takes for gluten to pass through the gut differs if you have a gluten-related condition.
"If someone does not have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity or allergy causing diarrhea, then gluten has a normal transit time, which is up to 4 hours in the stomach, up to 6 hours in the small intestine and up to 59 hours in the colon," Dr. Ivanina says. This adds up to about 2 and a half days, normally.
However, with celiac disease, gut transit time usually is increased, likely because of malabsorption or damaged small bowel motility, according to Dr. Ivanina.
"It's not really known exactly how long [it takes]," she says. The main thing is that it is abnormal, Dr. Ivanina says.
Celiac Harms the Intestine
"When gluten enters the small intestine, it is broken down into smaller fragments (peptides) and amino acids by enzymes (proteases), then some is absorbed in the intestine as nutrients and the rest travels through your gut," Dr. Ivanina says.
However, the bodies of people with celiac disease react abnormally to gluten, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Specifically, the immune system begins to harm the small intestine by attacking the tiny bumps, called villi, that line it. This is unhealthy because the villi play an important role in transporting nutrients from food to the bloodstream.
Celiac Disease vs. Gluten Sensitivity
Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are similar in some respects but differ in other important ways, according to Northwestern Medicine.
Celiac disease is just that — a disease, or more specifically, an autoimmune disorder. It is treated by avoiding gluten completely for life.
The most common symptom of celiac disease is diarrhea caused by malabsorption, in which the body is unable to completely absorb nutrients, according to the United Kingdom's National Health Service (NHS). Malabsorption, in turn, can lead to a condition called steatorrhea, or higher-than-normal levels of fat in a person's stool.
Other common gut-related symptoms of celiac disease, according to the NHS, include:
- Abdominal pain
- Bloating and flatulence
- Vomiting (typically only affects children)
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is just that — a sensitivity. It is treated by avoiding gluten, but unlike celiac disease, symptoms can improve significantly by simply reducing gluten intake. Also, while the effects of non-celiac gluten sensitivity can be unpleasant, they are not as detrimental to overall health as the effects of celiac disease, per Northwestern Medicine.
"Symptoms of celiac are more insidious in that the inflammatory response in the gut builds up until it manifests in symptoms that could include gut symptoms or may have nothing to do with the gut — such as a rash or anemia," Dr. Ivanina says.
How Long Does It Take to Heal?
Once you stop eating foods that contain gluten, your symptoms will probably improve within a few days, and your small intestine will likely heal completely in three to six months, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. In older adults, the healing process can take up to two years.