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While debate rages on over whether “gluten sensitivity” is a real medical condition or just an illness dreamt up by gluten-haters, some scientists are out there actually doing research on the subject – not to say that arguing about the issue in comments’ sections isn’t helpful. Now an Italian research team believes they may have found a clue to what’s behind non-celiac gluten sensitivity – a little molecule known as zonulin.

According to NPR, zonulin’s function in our digestive tracts is to help our bodies by flushing out harmful bacteria. However, evidence already exists that people with celiac disease have high level of zonulin in their blood. With this in mind, a team of researchers from the University of Bologna in Italy looked to see if a correlation also existed between zonulin levels and individuals with self-diagnosed gluten sensitivity. Indeed, compared to two other groups – a healthy control group and a group of patients with irritable bowel syndrome but no gluten sensitivity – both celiac and gluten sensitive patients had the highest zonulin levels.

According to Giovanni Barbara, one of the researchers behind the study, elevated zonulin levels wasn’t all his team found. “I was very surprised, but not only by the zonulin levels,” he said. “In our study, gluten-sensitive individuals who responded to a gluten-free diet had a genetic predisposition to celiac disease. They had no evidence of celiac, but they did have the vulnerable genes that put a person at risk of celiac.”

Still, Barbara seemed hesitant to link it all together at this point. “We need more research to determine the clinical usefulness of these markers,” he said. “Other laboratories need to reproduce our data, and we need to repeat our own experiment with gluten sensitive patients who have been identified by strict criteria in double blind studies.”