Whether it makes your stomach rumble with hunger or gas, there is no denying that gluten is the rising star of the dietary industry. As much as 30 percent of the American population is trying to eliminate or cut down on gluten. The food industry has responded accordingly, with sales of gluten-free products doubling in the past four years, rising from $11.5 billion to more than $23 billion.
As with any dietary fad (and some 47 percent of American consumers say the gluten-free diet is a fad), there is the inevitable backlash. It is undisputed that about 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten that impedes the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients. A much higher percentage—closer to six percent—have self-diagnosed as gluten sensitive.
This six percent—or about 18 million Americans—has borne the brunt of the gluten-free diet backlash, partly because there is no reliable way to test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Some research has even suggested that gluten sensitivity outside of celiac disease does not exist.
However, those suffering from non-celiac gluten sensitivity have finally received some validation. New research from Giovanni Barbara and other researchers from the University of Bologna in Italy suggests that those with non-celiac gluten sensitivities have high levels of the inflammatory protein zonulin.
Zonulin helps to regulate the gut by triggering diarrhea to flush out harmful pathogens. Once the pathogen has been flushed out, zonulin levels drop. Barbara’s study suggests that for some—and not just those with celiac disease—gluten is a strong trigger of zonulin.
In the study, Barbara’s team measured blood levels of zonulin in four groups of individuals: those with celiac disease, those with irritable bowel syndrome, those with self-diagnosed gluten sensitivity and those with no gastro-intestinal complaints. The results: those with
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