Wheat and the Leaky Gut – Funny Name, Serious Stuff
The grain known as wheat has had quite a ride in the past 50 years or so. The wheat we eat today is completely unrecognisable to the wheat our grandparents ate, thanks to the efforts of agriculture scientists working to significantly improve the yields of this staple crop. But what have these changes done to our health? Is it just a coincidence that the rise in auto-immune diseases, allergies and type II diabetes correlate to the changes in wheat? The science doesn’t think so.
Wheat, as our grandparents knew it in the mid-1900s, was a tall plant that had a pretty poor yield per acre when grown on farms. In order to make the crop more viable, several changes were made to the genetics of the wheat, including repetitive hybridisation, gamma-ray mutagenesis, and cross-breeding with other grasses (yes, wheat is a grass!). This created a modern strain that was selectively bred with a multitude of acquired mutations. These mutations make wheat a superior yielding crop that is much shorter, resistant to disease, grows extremely quickly and has superior milling characteristics. That’s great news for agri-business, but bad news for our health. In fact these new varieties have never been tested in humans for long-term safety.
One of the characteristics of wheat is that it is essentially indigestible to humans, we can’t eat the stalk, the leaf or the roots. The only part of this grass we can digest is the seed, and even then only part of the seed. The seed contains between 10-15% protein, most of which is known as gluten. Modern wheat contains much more gluten than before, and more precisely it contains more of a component of gluten called gliadin. It is the gliadin protein that creates damage in the gut in those with coeliac disease. What’s really interesting though is this mostly indigestible gliadin protein has also been shown to cause increased permeability in the gut (leaky gut), even in those who don’t have coeliac disease. As any naturopath will tell you, increased gut permeability is the first step in triggering auto-immune disease, and this goes some way to explaining the massive increase in auto-immune disease we are seeing in the western world.
Overeating and cravings for more food
Some of the gliadin is broken down by the body, very poorly, into smaller parts called peptides. The specific structure of these gliadin peptides have been shown to act as opiates. Like allopiates, they bind to opiate receptors in the brain, and in doing so, they stimulate appetite. What is interesting is that the opiate peptides of gliadin stimulate the brain in a specific way, by selectively increasing our appetite for carbohydrates: breads, cakes, biscuits etc. So we have a situation where modern wheat has been shown to alter our own brains biochemistry in a very powerful way, so that we seek out more calories every day, and is even responsible for obsessions with food seen in some conditions such as binge eating disorder and bulimia.
But it doesn’t stop there. Wheat also contains a polysaccharide (a long chain of sugar molecules) called amylopectin A. This polysaccharide is unique to grains and raises blood sugar higher than white sugar itself!
Finally, wheat contains another large poorly digested protein called wheat germ agglutinin. It is a large, indigestible protein that has been shown to block Leptin, which is the hormone the body uses to tell us that we are full. This means that wheat can fool our body into thinking it is still hungry, even when we have consumed enough calories!
Why we all need to take notice
In fact research has suggested that there are at least 50 parts of gluten proteins that are toxic to cells (cytotoxic), modify the immune system (immunomodulatory), and have gut-permeating activities. Although the incidence of coeliac disease is only around 2% of the population, genetic research has indicated that around 65% of us are sensitive to the effects of gluten. That’s 2/3rds of us! And because gluten can damage the gut lining, it leaves us unable to absorb nutrients, which opens us up to a wide variety of health problems. The fact that most of us are sensitive to the effects of gluten, in addition to the toxic nature of the gluten protein, is the reason why gluten is implicated in auto-immune disease, skin conditions, obesity, allergies in children, as well as neurological disorders such as such as chronic headache, autism, hypotonia, and learning disorders such as ADHD.
When we look more closely at this grain, which most of us eat several times a day, mostly without a second thought, we go some way to understanding why so many chronic illnesses can be linked to eating wheat, and why naturopaths and health researchers are recommending gluten free diets to those with a wide variety of conditions.