People suffering from gluten intolerance may eventually be able to have their cake and eat it too — a very, very small cake.

Researchers at McMaster University have discovered a key molecule that could lead to new therapies for people with celiac disease — a painful and currently untreatable autoimmune disorder best characterized by gluten intolerance.

The molecule is called elafin, which protects the lining of the intestine, said Elena Verdu, associate professor of medicine at McMaster.

elena-verdu-mcmaster

Elena Verdu is an associate professor of medicine at McMaster University. (McMaster University)

When gluten is ingested, it crosses through the intestinal lining and causes inflammation in celiacs, Verdu said. If celiacs have decreased elafin in the intestinal lining, she said, this can amplify the inflammation.

'The media is promoting this idea that gluten is evil and that the human race will go extinct if we eat it.'- Elena Verdu, associate professor of medicine at McMaster University.

People with celiac disease always have to be vigilant because even very small amounts of gluten can damage their intestinal lining, she said, which usually recovers slowly from past damage.

Verdu said treatment with elafin could strengthen the intestinal lining, protect it from accidental small ingestation of gluten, and help it recover faster.

The Canadian Institute of Health Research funded the research to the amount of $100,000 per year for four years. They have two years left in the grant.

'They can’t just go out and have pizza'

Gluten is a group of proteins in wheat, rye and barley. It gives elasticity to dough and contributes to the baking properties of bread.

“It is not easy to follow a gluten-free diet for life. This is particularly true for young people who cannot go out and have pizza with their friends,” said Verdu.

Since so many foods have gluten and vital-gluten (a cost-effective additive to processed foods that can give food the same chewy consistency), people with celiac disease need to read ingredients carefully.

Suffering from celiac can also have social implications, Verdu said. Sufferers need to be cautious when eating out at restaurants because sauces can contain gluten, and food can sometimes be contaminated by flour.

Gluten-free diet 'advocated by celebrities for the wrong reasons'

There is no proven evidence to say that gluten is harmful to our health if celiac disease has been ruled out, Verdu said. “The gluten-free diet is being advocated by celebrities for the wrong reasons.”

“The media is promoting this idea that gluten is always harmful and that the human race will go extinct if we eat it.”

There has been a recent uproar in people self-diagnosing themselves as gluten-sensitive when they might not be, Verdu said. There are many other proteins in wheat grain that may contribute to the common complaint of abdominal pain, such as ATIs which help grains be resistant to pests.

“There may be an additional environmental change that we are not recognizing," she said.

"We take more antibiotics...We are too clean.”

'Celiac is a chameleon'

Celiac can present itself in so many ways and symptoms that Verdu said people suffering from it tend to slip through the cracks.

“We know that there is a delay of at least 10 years in the diagnosis of celiac disease… it’s not only in children, but in adults too — especially in adults,” said Verdu.

There is a specific blood test for screening for celiac disease, said Verdu, and some doctors need to recognize it more.

She said doctors should follow up with patients who are diagnosed with celiac. Patients should be brought back a year later, and they should have closer relationships with dietitians.

Specific symptoms in children that have undiagnosed celiac disease are stunted growth, dental problems, and a history of abdominal complaints.

Other symptoms include:

  • Diarrhoea.
  • Constipation.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Neurological symptoms. 
  • Anemia.
  • Fertility problems.
  • Dental problems.
  • Other autoimmune disorders.