In his essay, The Dark Side Wheat, Sayer Ji uses the epigenetic concept to make a very interesting argument:
“Thus, we may need to shift our epidemiological focus from viewing celiac disease as a ‘classical disease’ involving a passive subject controlled by aberrant genes, to viewing it as an expression of a natural, protective response to the ingestion of something that the human body was not designed to consume. If we view celiac disease not as an unhealthy response to a healthy food, but as a healthy response to an unhealthy food, classical celiac disease symptoms make more sense.”
For example, diarrhea can be seen as the body’s way of expelling a toxin faster. Villous atrophy, the destruction of the intestinal villi (finger-like tentacles that line the small intestine wall and absorb nutrients) as the body’s way of avoiding absorption of a toxin in order to protect itself. These responses could therefore be interpreted as the body developing protective mechanisms to chronic exposure to wheat, rather than the development of a genetically derived classic disease process out of the blue.
Wheat, barley, spelt, and rye are all grains that contain the protein gluten. Gluten really means glue! It has actually been used throughout history as an adhesive in many industrialized products such as paint, papier-mâché, book binding glue, and plaster. With this in mind, if you suffer with constipation and do not move your bowels at least once per day, then consider the gluten you ingest and try eliminating it from your diet for three weeks to see if this simple change makes a difference.
Even cows that are evolved to eat the mature sprouted form of grasses by grazing are not able to digest the seed storage form of grains and have trouble with gluten. Cows are herbivores and have redundant multi-chambered fore stomachs that enable them to breakdown cellulose and anti-nutrient rich plants, but they are not designed to consume grains.
“Feeding wheat to beef cattle requires some caution as it tends to be more apt than other cereal grains to cause acute indigestion in animals which are unadapted to it. The primary problem appears to be the high gluten content of which wheat in the rumen can result in a pasty consistency to the rumen contents and reduces motility.”
Evolution of the Human Diet
I have heard many argue that grains have always been a part to the human diet, so why is it a problem now? Wheat and other grains have not always been a part of the human diet and actually are a relatively new addition when you look at the historical timeline and evolution of the human diet.
At first, our origins were in tropical rainforests of Africa and our diet consisted mostly of fruits and vegetables. Then, during the Paleolithic Era (60,000 years ago), we did more hunting and gathering and ate meat, nuts, seeds, low starch vegetables, and fruits. It was this diet that allowed humans to migrate North from Africa and spread throughout the other continents. It was not until the end of the last Ice Age or 20,000 years ago that humans began a slow transition to a cereal grass-based diet. This is actually a small amount of time in the overall timeline of the development of the human diet and what we are adept at digesting.
Adverse Effects of Wheat
In his essay, Sayer Ji presents these six adverse effects of wheat, which I will explain further throughout this blog post:
- Damages the intestines
- Causes intestinal permeability (also known as ‘leaky gut’)
- Has pharmacologic effects
- Damages organs outside the intestine
- Induces molecular mimicry
- Contains excitotoxins
Damage to the Intestines
Gliadin is an alcohol-soluble protein component of wheat that is high in the amino acids proline and glutamine. In a study published in GUT in 2007 looked at the effect of gliadin on the innate immune system of patients with and without celiac disease. The results showed that all patients produced an inflammatory immune response in response to gliadin from wheat.
The difference between those with celiac disease and those without celiac disease is that those with celiac disease went on to also develop an adaptive immune response with further immune mediators causing a further and more damaging effect on the intestinal villi. The concern is that this study demonstrated that everyone had a negative inflammatory reaction initiated by gliadin, not just those with celiac disease.
Don’t forget our explanation of epigenetics: your environment that consists of your diet, chemical exposure, stress levels, etc. is more powerful in causing dis-ease in your health than your genetic DNA you were born with. For example, taking a lot of NSAID’s (naproxen, Advil, aspirin, Motrin) profoundly increase intestinal permeability. Eating standard American diet full of wheat products and other grains, results in a constant increased level of inflammation and toxic stress, leading your system down a path toward autoimmune disease and dysfunction.
Seeds Are the Babies of Plants
Another interesting concept to think about is that wheat grain used to make flour and other food substances comes from the seeds of the plant. Seeds are the babies of plants and determine the continuance of their species. Plants are living things and just like porcupines or skunks or other living things have methods to protect themselves from predators so they can survive. Plants do not typically have armor or spray horrible smelling liquids at their predators, but they do contain toxins (lectins) and anti-nutrients (gliadin/gluten) to protect them against predators.
How to Know if Wheat or Other Foods are Toxic to Your System?
There are all sorts of lab tests to assess a person for food allergies or sensitivities, but they cost a lot of money and for many of my patients the results make it look like they are sensitive to everything. The problem is that so many people have a leaky gut with dysfunctional gaps in the tight junctions between the cells of the intestinal lining and are not digesting their foods appropriately enough. As a result, many substances that are trying to be absorbed through the intestinal lining are being seen by the immune system as foreign and initiating an immune/inflammatory response and making us sick.
There is a way to cleanse and quiet your system on your own. Once it is quiet and not so reactive you can systematically expose your system to different foods or food categories and test for yourself whether you are sensitive to wheat or and foods or not. This method is called an elimination diet and is the most powerful tool I know of for anyone to use to identify their individual food sensitivities.
I believe in the power of this method so much that I have put together a Detox Plus Program that walks anyone through the steps of how to do a three-week comprehensive elimination detoxifying diet and then how to systematically re-challenge the different foods.
Gliadin, a protein in wheat grain, upregulates the production of a protein known as zonulin. Zonulin is a protein that modulates the permeability of tight junctions between cells of the wall of the digestive tract. It was discovered in 2000 by Alessio Fasano and his team at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Gliadin increases zonulin in your intestines which then loosens the tight junctions between the one layer of cells that make up the wall of your intestines. This allows larger and larger molecules to get through your intestinal wall. These large molecules are not meant to be absorbed and typically are seen by our immune system as foreign and bad. Our immune system, which is our military protection from invaders, attacks these perceived foreign molecules. This attack causes increased inflammation in our systems that over time leads to an overactive and exhausted immune system that then starts to think even our native cells are foreign and starts attacking them as well which causes autoimmune disease. Studies have demonstrated a direct connection between the overexpression of zonulin and a number of autoimmune disorders, particularly celiac disease and type 1 diabetes.
Wheat grain has been called “the staff of life” and it is also considered “comfort food,” but why has this come to be?
First, all proteins are made up of a long string of amino acids that are bound together and fold on each other to form a unique structure. Gliadin or gluten, the protein in wheat, when digested gets broken down into shorter strands of amino acids called peptides. Gliadorphin is a seven amino acid long peptide fragment from gliadin.
“When digestive enzymes are insufficient to break gliadorphin down into 2-3 amino acid lengths and a compromised intestinal wall allows for the leakage of the entire 7 amino acid long fragment into the blood, gliadorphin (sound enough like morphine yet?) can pass through to the brain and activate opioid receptors resulting in disrupted brain function.”
Gliadorphin is not the only gluten “exorphin” that has been identified.
“Gluten exorphin A4, A5, B4, B5, and C have all been identified and many of them have been hypothesized to play a role in autism, schizophrenia, ADHD, and related neurological conditions.”
Biologists Greg Wadley and Angus Martin have hypothesized,
“Cereals have important qualities that differentiate them from most other drugs. They are a food source as well as a drug and can be stored and transported easily. They are ingested in frequent small doses and do not impede work performance in most people. A desire for the drug, even cravings or withdrawal, can be confused with hunger. These features make cereals the ideal facilitator of civilization.”
Historically, it has been argued that wheat may have assisted in the growth of the Roman Empire and the spread of civilization. The Roman Empire was known as the “Wheat Empire.” Soldiers were paid in wheat and a soldier’s punishment included being deprived of wheat rations. Forts were actually granaries holding up to a year’s worth of grain.
We are literally addicted to wheat. Have you ever tried to eliminate wheat and gluten products from your diet? It is not easy to do. The fact that these peptide fragments from gluten act as opioid or narcotic drugs in our brains explains why it is not easy to eliminate gluten. When we eliminate gluten, we actually experience withdrawal symptoms and need another fix to stop them.
How about children? What do kids eat for breakfast most mornings? Cereals! Do we want them exposed to a constant opioid/narcotic effect from the food they eat? What effect is this having on their ability to learn, be creative, and develop?
Damages to Other Organs and Tissues
Wheat contains lectins which are small sugar binding proteins. These proteins bind to various cells in our bodies and cause damage. First, they can bind to the outer surface of the microvilli of our small intestine and cause shedding or destruction of the brush border membrane. This will lead to decreased surface area of the villi for absorption of nutrients and it will accelerate cell losses. This destruction of the intestinal wall brush border is not caused by the immune system, it is caused by the lectin itself and will lead to malabsorption of vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
Second, lectins bind to the same receptors in our brains (hypothalamus) that leptin is supposed to bind to. Leptin is a hormone that tells us we are full when we eat a meal. If lectins block leptin from binding to its receptor in our brain, then we do not know we are full and we just keep on eating. Have you noticed that you could eat a ton of grains prior to feeling full? Do you notice that you are hungry again only an hour or so after eating cereal for breakfast? The process of lectin interfering with leptin signaling the full feeling leads to obesity. If you want to lose weight and have the ability to feel full appropriately then stop eating wheat and monitor the effect over a three-week period.
Third, lectins bind to similar sites as insulin and imitate insulin, but do not carry out the same metabolic activity as insulin. Insulin helps us to metabolize sugars and utilize the sugar to produce energy. If the insulin cannot do its job properly than this is called insulin resistance and leads to diabetes. Therefore, the lectins in wheat are a cause of high blood sugar, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.
Finally, lectins do not only cause damage in the intestine, but they also travel in the blood stream to other organs and cause damage. For example, wheat lectin has been shown to cause an IgA antibody response in the kidneys that damages kidney cell. This means it can cause an autoimmune reaction that can destroy kidney cells or initiate kidney cancer.
Individual amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and peptides are fragments of proteins containing a smaller number of amino acids than the complete protein. The gluten from wheat is a complete protein that when fragmented is broken into different size peptides. A thirty-three amino acid long fragment of gluten is known as 33-mer and it has a similar structure and function and can mimic Bordetella pertussis, the bacterium that causes whooping cough.
Therefore, the 33-mer peptide can initiate an immune system response as if it were a pathogen that the immune system needs to attack. This immune reaction can end up causing an immune response against self-tissues, which is an autoimmune reaction.
Again, the gold standard method of determining if you have a gluten sensitivity is to eliminate all sources of gluten for three weeks to allow your immune system to quiet and then systematically re-challenge gluten for up to 72 hours and monitor for concerning symptoms such as bowel issues, headaches, joint pain, or fatigue. You can learn how to do a comprehensive elimination diet with my Detox Plus Program.
Wheat, dairy, and soy have very high levels of two amino acids called glutamic and aspartic amino acids. Glutamic and aspartic acid both can bind to nerve receptors and cause an over excitation of nerve cells. This over excitation can lead to nerve and brain injury. Of all cereal grasses commonly eaten, wheat contains the highest levels of glutamic acid and aspartic acid.
Actually, glutamic acid is largely responsible for wheat’s exceptional taste. Glutamic acid is put in monosodium glutamate (MSG) to add taste to food. MSG was first taken from kelp, but wheat can be used as well due to its high glutamic acid content.
It is probable that the opiate effects of wheat discussed earlier together with the flavor enhancer of glutamic acid contribute to wheat’s vast popularity! However, the excitotoxic effects of glutamic and aspartic acid may also be contributing to a number of neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, migraine headaches, and attention deficit disorder (ADD) to name a few.
So, in conclusion, this summarizes the article entitled The Dark Side of Wheat, by Sayer Ji. In this article celiac disease has been looked at in comparison to an iceberg in which classic celiac disease is only the tip of a much larger issue of gluten sensitivity. Then, six adverse effects of gluten have been explained.
Again, I highly suggest doing a comprehensive elimination diet to assess if gluten is affecting your health. My Detox Plus Program includes:
- Overview of the Detox Plus Program with an Elimination Diet Guidebook
- Detox pathways and supplement suggestions to optimizeyour detox
- Stress reduction and detox enhancement education
- Step by step information on how to re-challenge foods to assess for food sensitivities
- Suggestions on what to do once you finish the Detox Plus Program
- Individual health coaching visit to answer your questions and get you started
Learn more about my Detox Plus Program!
More Discover Health Podcast resources about gluten-free living:
- Blog: Health Conditions that Can Benefit from a Gluten-Free Diet
- Gluten Sensitivity
- Discover Health Podcast & Blog: Why is Changing My Lifestyle So Hard?
Dr. Trish Murray is a highly accomplished physician certified in internal medicine, osteopathic manipulative medicine, energy medicine, and functional medicine. In addition, she is a best-selling author and the Health Catalyst Speaker. She is the founder of Discover Health Functional Medicine Center in Conway, New Hampshire and has collaborated with four other wellness professionals to create Discover Health Movement Membership.
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