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Does Gluten Really Cause Inflammation in Everyone? Takeaways for Climbers

Does gluten cause inflammation in everyone, or just those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities? Should athletes avoid gluten?

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For every climber, and any serious athlete for that matter, keeping our bodies feeling great and functioning optimally is critical for performance. Inflammation can be a challenge for some, and can have serious implications in the body. When it comes to battling inflammation—whether it manifests as gut distress, headaches, skin irregularities, joint pain, fatigue, and more—diet analysis may be the answer.

When you do a quick google search on Gluten and Inflammation, you can find just about every conflicting opinion there is under the sun. Popular books surface, like Grain Brain, where gluten is portrayed as the villain, and Eat Wheat, where the inability to digest properly is the true bad guy. Both sides of the story pose valid points. However, not only is this incredibly overwhelming, it also feels as if there is an element of dishonesty from one side or the other. 

So, what’s the truth? My questions are: what is the most current research saying? And, what does this mean for athletic performance in climbers?

The Wheat Evolution and the Rise in Gluten-Related Disorders

Wheat composition and consumption has changed drastically over the last 120-plus years. Most wheat grains today are made up of about 70 percent starch and are roughly 10 to 12 percent protein. At 75 to 80 percent, gluten makes up the large majority of a grain’s protein content. Gluten is a compound mix of different protein molecules that can basically be divided into two main groups: “gliadins” and “glutenins.” 

Science has shown that wheat proteins can trigger certain inflammatory autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease (CD). Current estimates show about one percent of the adult population to be affected worldwide by CD, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is rapidly on the rise

Some believe that there is potentially a positive correlation between changes in gluten content in wheat due to genetic breeding and the rise in CD and NCGS. A recent study by the Leibniz-Institute for Food Systems Biology at the Technical University of Munich and the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research dug into these facts a bit deeper. Researchers investigated the five leading wheat varieties from each decade between the examined years 1891 and 2010. After analyzing the cultivated samples, scientists found that modern wheat generally contains less protein than older strains, and the gluten content has relatively stayed the same. Gliadin—which is critically viewed as the protein that causes inflammation—actually dropped 18 percent, while glutenins rose 25 percent. The researchers also found that higher precipitation correlated to higher gluten content in the different wheat varieties

These findings debunk the theory that increased gluten content in wheat grains over the years has been attributed to CD and NCGS. However, this study focused on German varieties of wheat, and not wheat cultivated or genetically modified in the United States. More research specific to wheat varieties found in different regions over time must be done before we can generalize these findings.

Other current theories explaining the rise in CD are increased consumption of gluten-containing food, confusion between FODMAP sensitivity (other hard to digest carbohydrates) and celiac-related symptoms, and what is known as the “hygiene hypothesis,” where increased sanitation impacts microflora diversity, ultimately changing the way the immune system responds to foreign particles.

Once CD is developed, symptoms can manifest in a number of ways: diarrhea, weight loss, malabsorption, constipation, anemia, osteoporosis, neurological disorders, and skin issues. Ultimately, when an individual becomes diagnosed with CD, they can no longer tolerate gluten-containing foods, and should avoid them altogether.

Non Celiac Gluten Sensitivities are also on the rise, and many of the symptoms mirror the ones listed above. For those individuals, gluten should be minimized whenever possible. However, the majority of the population still falls under “Team Breadsticks!”

What About Gluten Consumption for Non-Gluten Sensitive People?

With the recent craze of gluten-free diets and living a gluten-free lifestyle, this poor non-essential protein has completely been villainized, but should we all live in fear? This is where it gets sticky—as there are conflicting opinions around every corner. Looking at recent studies, a comprehensive current review published in 2019 states that research shows gliadin may cause an immediate increase in tight cells’ junction permeability of the intestinal epithelial cells. (English please!) What this means is that when gliadin is ingested, the connection between the cells within our digestive tract—that are usually tightly “stitched” together—begin to slowly “unravel.” This effect has also been linked to the release of zonulin which is a molecule that also contributes to tight cell junction disassembly. Over time, this can create gaps between cells, allowing for undigested protein and particles to escape from the digestive system and into the bloodstream. This condition is also known as leaky gut, or intestinal permeability.

(Diving deeper into these studies, some were using patients who were genetically predisposed to celiac disease, and some were not. More studies on the non-predisposed population must be done.)

Another study that involved 1,095 young adults ages 20-29, showed that increased gluten intake was directly associated with increased concentrations of plasma α2-macroglobulin, which is an important marker of inflammation. The conclusion of this study is: Gluten consumption is associated with increased plasma α2-macroglobulin in young adults, which appears to be independent of celiac disease, suggesting possible effects of gluten on inflammation

After looking into the science and biomechanics of gluten consumption, it seems that gluten ingestion may induce inflammation at the intestinal level for individuals. However, this inflammation remains on a spectrum: some will experience inflammation more notably, while others may feel relatively unaffected. So for the majority of the population, having some pizza or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from time to time should not be something to become overly stressed over, and is probably no big deal at all when done in moderation

For serious athletes—and individuals struggling with symptoms of inflammation—the compounding inflammatory factor of consistent gluten intake could make all the difference.

Going “Gluten-Free” is Not Necessarily the Best Answer

How can we apply this research to better our health, our bodies, and our climbing performance? Going “gluten-free” might seem to be the most blindingly obvious answer. Yet, that—my friends—can be a slippery slope of sneaky danger as well. 

Gluten-free has become such a trendy label in recent years, yet it certainly does not mirror the image of healthful, nutritive food. The majority of the gluten-free items available are still highly-processed foods, that sometimes mask hydrogenated oils, heaps of added sugars, and other ingredients that we probably want to avoid. Therefore, swapping all of your glutenous favorite foods for their “Gluten-Free” twin is not the answer

Instead, finding variety amongst unrefined gluten-free grains is a great way to add foods rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals:

  • Rice
  • Quinoa
  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Arrowroot
  • Corn
  • Millet

If you are someone who is struggling with inflammation and feel that it is impacting your performance and recovery, consider working with your primary care physician to test common inflammatory markers, and invest in the individualized counseling of a nutritionist or dietician to come up with a food plan that is specific to your goals. 

Emily Ipsen offers 1:on:1 nutrition consultations, individualized nutrition protocols, supplement reviews and recommendations, nutrition classes, meal plans, recipe ideas, and more! For questions or inquiries, please contact emily.ipsen@mynourishedroots.com, or you may follow Emily on Instagram at ems_nourishedroots.com to message directly. 

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to treat or diagnose disease in any way. Emily Ipsen is a Nutrition Therapy Practitioner, and not a medical doctor. Some foods and supplements may interact with certain medications. Please consult with your physician before you try new products.