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The Gluten Connection: Weighing in Against Modern Wheat
Publish date: Dec 3, 2011
Summary: Jean Handwerk explains the connection between modern wheat and many averse health effects.
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Weighing in Against Modern Wheat
Cardiologist William Davis wrote Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Belly to report his findings when pre-diabetic or diabetic clients came to him for heart disease prevention and followed his advice. He told them that wheat products, such as whole wheat bread, raise blood sugar levels higher than nearly all other known foods.
Wheat can be addictive, having a protein unique to wheat gluten called gliadin, which is converted to a morphine-like compound that has the capacity to cross into the brain and bind to morphine receptors. This causes a desire for more food. In short, the gliadin component is an appetite stimulant; people will eat more because their brains tell them they need more. In his book, Dr. Davis explains that modern wheat has been developed to have significantly more gliadin than that of decades and centuries past, so the problem is a more recent one—and a serious one. The only way to “stop feeding the monster” is to stop eating the wheat.i
When Dr. Davis’ clients did forego all wheat products, what happened exceeded his and their expectations. Not only did excess weight disappear from hips, thighs, faces and bellies, but many of his clients saw other health problems fade away as well. For many, diabetes, arthritis, high cholesterol, hypertension, stroke, skin conditions, heart attack, digestion-related pain, joint inflammation pain, underweight, brain fog—all lessened or were eliminated.
Gluten Grains, Brain Fog, and Alzheimer's
Dr. Davis mentioned some people’s “brain fog” clearing when they go off wheat, but there’s more to the story about gluten grains and the neurological symptoms they can cause. First, a bit of background might be helpful.
Celiac disease—also known as gluten intolerance—is an increasingly common, multi-organ systemic disease that most often affects the gut but also affects other organs, especially the skin. In the gut, the villi that line the small intestine are damaged. Villi are the means by which the body absorbs nutrients from digested food. When people with celiac disease eat foods that contain gluten, their immune system reacts and villi are compromised or damaged in that reaction. Because the villi cannot perform their function as God designed, nutrient assimilation is affected. A person becomes malnourished no matter how much good food he or she eats. In addition, when minute, incompletely digested food particles escape through the damaged gut wall into the bloodstream (leaky gut syndrome), food intolerances or allergies result, compounding the misery.
A variety of either immediate or delayed symptoms are associated with celiac disease, ranging from bloating and gas to cramping and diarrhea, or even intense pain. Others experience fatigue, anemia, skin rashes, or severe headaches. Osteoporosis is also associated with gluten intolerance because of mineral assimilation. Because symptoms of gluten intolerance are so varied and unspecific, a diagnosis is often difficult. But one important point to be made in this article is that sometimes the symptoms are the same as those for dementia. In fact, the British medical journal The Lancet reported that gluten sensitivity can sometimes be exclusively a neurological disease. In other words, people can have issues with brain function without any accompanying gastrointestinal problems whatsoever.ii
Most doctors attribute forgetfulness or confusion to normal aging or Alzheimer’s disease. Research from the Mayo Clinic, however, indicates that celiac disease should be considered when people start experiencing amnesia, confusion, or personality changes, or when they have trouble thinking, doing simple math, or remembering things. Several of their patients had been diagnosed with both celiac disease and dementia. In two cases, a gluten-free diet reversed the cognitive decline.iii, iv Getting a blood test for gluten sensitivity when brain function appears to be declining is a simple way to avoid a wrong diagnosis of irreversible dementia, inappropriate treatment, and prolonged suffering.
More on the Gluten Sensitivity-Brain Failure Link
“Researchers in Israel have described neurological problems in 51 percent of children with gluten sensitivity, . . . [and] a link between gluten sensitivity and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Actually, the link between gluten sensitivity and problems with brain function, including learning disabilities, and even memory problems, is not that difficult to understand. Gluten sensitivity is caused by elevated levels of antibodies against a component of gluten called gliadin. This antibody (the antigliadin antibody) combines with gliadin when a person is exposed to any gluten-containing food like wheat, barley, or rye.
When this happens, protein-specific genes are turned on in a special type of immune cell in the body. When these genes are turned on, inflammatory chemicals called cytokines are created. Cytokines, which are the chemical mediators of inflammation, are directly detrimental to brain function. In fact, elevated levels of cytokines are seen in such devastating conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and even autism. Essentially, the brain does not like inflammation and responds quite negatively to the presence of cytokines.”v
Improvement When Gluten Avoided
The same link between gluten intolerance and senile mental deterioration, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease was found in yet another study. Eliminating gluten from the diet of subjects with senile memory loss over a period of three months resulted in over 70% showing marked signs of memory improvement.vi
After observing that schizophrenic individuals in six countries required fewer hospitalizations during World War II when food shortages made bread unavailable and that hospitalizations increased after wheat consumption resumed after the war, one doctor connected wheat to worsening symptoms requiring hospitalizations. Also, when gluten grain products were introduced into a Stone Age cultural group in New Guinea where schizophrenia was almost non-existent, the incidence of schizophrenia increased sixty-five fold. Other studies have confirmed wheat’s deleterious effect on mind disorder. Remove the wheat: improvement. Restore it: decline. Did wheat cause the problem? This is unlikely, but it certainly worsens the symptoms.vii
Dr. Davis has a wheat sensitivity so he experimented on himself. Einkorn is an ancient, unadulterated variety of wheat, as is emmer, and he wanted to see if his problem was wheat in general, or isolated to just modern wheat. First he ate four ounces of Einkorn bread and noted his body’s reactions. He actually felt fine and had normal blood sugar elevation after ingestion. The next day, he ate four ounces of organic whole wheat bread. His blood sugar went 57 points higher than it did with einkorn. He reported, “I soon became nauseated . . . The queasy effect persisted for nearly thirty-six hours, accompanied by stomach cramps that started almost immediately and lasted for many hours. Sleep . . . was fitful, though filled with vivid dreams. I couldn’t think straight, nor could I understand the research papers I was trying to read . . . I finally gave up. Only a full day and a half later did I start feeling normal again.”x
Yeast May Make the Problem Worse
For some, the adverse body/mind difficulties caused by gluten may be compounded by the yeast in raised breads. Even a whiff of live yeast can cause severe reactions. This is not news. Over 150 years ago, health reformer Ellen White wrote, “Bread should be light and sweet. Not the least taint of sourness should be tolerated. The loaves should be small, and so thoroughly baked that, as far as possible, the yeast germs shall be destroyed. When hot, or new, raised bread of any kind is difficult for digestion. It should never appear on the table. This rule does not, however, apply to unleavened bread. Fresh rolls made of wheaten meal, without yeast or leaven, and baked in a well-heated oven, are both wholesome and palatable . . .”xi Because of the yeast, “bread which is two or three days old is more healthful than new bread.”xii
After listening to a radio program on celiac disease, one woman reported, “After a week of rice and vegetables, I couldn't believe how much better I felt. The bloating, gas, diarrhea, and puffiness were gone. Best of all, though, the depression, lethargy and inability to concentrate and think began to lift. Not long before, I had insisted my doctor test me for Alzheimer's! I was losing my ability to recognize faces. I couldn't have written a letter because I wouldn't have been able to sustain a train of thought long enough to get past the first paragraph.”13
Just recently, the United Nations’ World Health Organization warned that dementia will double within 18 years, and more than triple by 2050. We don’t know how many in that increase will actually be reacting to gluten/gliadin and get misdiagnosed because we know gluten intolerance is also increasing. Even if you’re just looking for a clearer mind, try a gluten-free diet for a time to see if there’s any improvement.
A gluten-free diet is neither impossible nor unappealing. An Internet search will yield many recipes or cookbooks. Often it’s just a matter of replacing gluten grains with a variety of delicious, nutritionally-loaded alternatives like millet, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, teff, corn (organic only; most corn is genetically modified) and all different kinds and colors of rice. One might even try emmer or einkorn wheat; both are delicious and healthful but they don’t taste or rise like today’s wheat. Soaked chia seeds or ground flax seeds can replace gluten to hold non-gluten flour mixes together. Non-gluten breads do not rise as well as wheat does, but yeast-free breads are numerous, delicious, and easy-to-make.
iii. "Celiac Disease May Masquerade as Alzheimer’s," editorial, http://www.peoplespharmacy.com/2006/10/30/celiac-disease-1/
vii. William Davis, Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health. New York: Rodale, 2011, 46.
viii. One can learn more about emmer and einkorn wheat from the Heritage Wheat Conservancy, an organization dedicated to preserving ancient food crops by cultivating them, using organic principles. See www.growseed.org.
ix. William Davis, Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health. New York: Rodale, 2011, 26.
x. Ibid., 26-7.
xi. Ellen White, Ministry of Healing, 301.
xii. Ellen White, Counsels on Diet and Foods, 317.
xiii. http://www.peoplespharmacy.com/2006/10/30/celiac-disease-1/. A CD of that one-hour radio interview about celiac disease that covers symptoms, diagnosis and treatment is available for $16 from the People’s Pharmacy (CD- 594), P. O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027 or from www.peoplespharmacy.com.