Gluten is a glycoprotein that is found in some cereals, mainly wheat, barley and rye. It has very little nutritional value, however gluten’s raw elements are important in the food industry due to its characteristics as an emollient and gelling agent.
In the last few decades, global consumption of gluten has been on the rise. One of the reasons is its importance in the food industry as it is something that has caused modified wheat crops with higher quantities of gluten to appear. Moreover, the increase of sugar consumption appears to have also had an implication on the increased use of gluten (due also to industrial processes).
Pathologies associated with gluten.
Gluten consumption is associated with immune system, gastrointestinal and mental problems. The possible role of the intestinal flora (microbiotics) in the development of the exact diseases caused by gluten is yet unknown. However, there are indications which point to gluten as a possible key factor in the development and also treatment of these diseases. If correct, the treatment of such pathologies consists in maintaining a diet free of products that are gluten free. The most severe pathology associated with gluten is celiac disease. It is characterised by an inflammatory response, which is immune based, in the mucous of the small intestine and causes difficulty in absorbing macro and micronutrients. However, this is not the only pathology, as individuals who are not celiac are becoming more sensitive to gluten. This is becoming more common in the Western world and, in many cases, is difficult to diagnose. In many cases, this goes unnoticed and provokes serious health problems in the long run.
On the other hand, there are studies that show the addictive effect that gluten has on our brains, therefore associating its consumption with different mental diseases. These studies claim that cereals containing gluten produce polypeptides called exorphins or gluten morfina which penetrate the blood-brain barrier in the human body when digested. They enter into the morphine receptors producing a momentary high or euphoria and favour mental symptoms where hallucinations are prone.
Some scientists defend that gluten-free diets have a positive role on the health of the population and not solely on those who have a gluten-related disease. However, to date, no scientific evidence exists to recommend that the entire population avoid gluten. It is also true that many individuals, who have not been diagnosed with a gluten-related disease, have decided to remove it from their diets and have found themselves to be much healthier and energetic.
Many symptoms associated with the “incapacity to digest gluten” exist:
- Gastrointestinal: stomach pain and inflammation, diarrhea, flatulence, constipation etc.
- Neurologic: frequent headaches, memory loss, depression, behavioural difficulties.
- Immune Conditions: frequent infections such as flu and colds, bacterial infections, mouth ulcers.
- Inflammation and bowel disease: joint stiffness, allergies, arthritis, colitis, thyroiditis etc.
- Skin rashes: Eczema, Psoriasis, skin irritations.
- General: food cravings, tiredness, chronic fatigue, feeling of sickness.
Gluten and the athlete: gastric discomfort and performance increase
It is well-known that many athletes, especially those who practice endurance sports, have unfortunate gastric or intestinal discomfort. Furthermore, while practicing physically intense or endurance sports, the digestive system and, more concretely, the gut flora are organs that come under great stress. To minimise these discomforts, it is recommendable and reasonable to avoid consuming foods and supplements that contain gluten, before, during and after training. For these reasons many top athletes have opted to eliminate gluten from their diets, something which has had provided notable results.
Chris Froome, two-time winner of the Tour de France, has a very strict diet which he believes can be defining in order to achieve optimal sporting results and maintain a perfect state of health. As a result of this, and among other things, he decided to eliminate gluten from his diet. “I used to eat lots of muesli thinking it was good, but the truth is it had lots of wheat and sugar. When consuming gluten there is a tendency to retain more water so now I avoid it. Instead of pasta and bread, I eat rice and quinoa, which are easier to digest.”
Timothy Olson, two-time winner and current record holder of the Western States 100 mile race, has also admitted to leaving gluten to one side in order to find an optimal, balanced diet and take care to ensure that his body is free of toxins.
In 2011, tennis star Novak Djokovic completed what was considered the best season by any tennis professional to date. He won 43 straight matches, 10 titles and three Grand Slams. Up to that date, Djokovic was a very inconsistent player and constantly troubled by health problems. The tennis star himself confessed that for him the great change was deciding to start a gluten free diet which allowed him to lose some weight and find his best performance, something that he has been able to reproduce a few occasions to date.
This facts marked a turning point and started a tendency to eliminate gluten from sports diets in order to achieve maximal sporting performances.