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Gluten-free experts make what seems to be a compelling case against wheat using a variety of so-called “wheat toxins” as the evidence that wheat – a grain early humans started eating 3.4 million years ago – should be taken out of our diets permanently.
In this article, I want to share the other side of the science, which suggests that these “toxins” (some of which are naturally-occurring protective anti-nutrients) may not be so toxic after all. In fact, as you will read below, the science suggests that while these anti-nutrients may be hard to digest, they actually have numerous beneficial properties.
In addition, those so-called wheat toxins are a part of a more beneficial whole. Humans have been eating food toxins for millions of years that are more harmful than the toxins in wheat. For example, tomatoes and potatoes were once lethal, but now through hybridization techniques only have small amounts of these poisons. In the case of wheat, we have lost the benefits of the whole in search for the toxins that cause the inability to digest wheat.
Let’s dig in…
Phytates – Anti-nutrients
Phytates are anti-nutrients that help block bacterial enzymes from gobbling up the grain while the grain or seed lies dormant, awaiting germination in the spring. The concerns around phytates are that they block the absorption of minerals like iron, calcium, phosphorus and zinc.
While grain-free proponents claim that phytates can cause serious mineral deficiencies, numerous studies have not been able to come to a consensus on whether phytates actually do so. In fact, one study compared a high-phyate grain diet with a low-phytate diet, and after 8 weeks, the high-phytate group a 41% better absorption of iron than the low-phytate group. This suggests that the body has adapted to regular consumption of phytates over millions of years. (1)
Other anti-grain proponents suggest that the high-grain and legume diets rich in phytic acids rob calcium from the bones and cause bone density issues. In another study, a well-rounded diet that includes high-grain, high-phytate foods was found to contribute positively to bone density. (2)
Other studies suggest that phytic acids from a higher grain and bean diet: (3)
- Can lower cholesterol and triglycerides
- Can reduce the risk of calcium kidney stones
- Has anti-colon cancer properties
Another study showed that a diet high in wheat fiber and phytic acid will delay the absorption of certain minerals and antioxidants in the small intestine so they can be transported undigested to the large intestine, where they feed the lion’s share of beneficial microbes. In fact, these transported nutrients double the production of beneficial butyric acid in the colon – which is responsible for gut immunity, cellular energy, microbe proliferation and much, much more. (3) Is it possible that after millions of years of eating wheat, we have adapted to use all of it by spreading it’s breakdown throughout the entire digestive tract?
As soon as we start chewing a slice of bread, there are numerous microbes in the mouth that produce enzymes to start working on breaking down the hard-to-digest gluten gliadins. (7,8) These microbes were also found in the esophagus and stomach, suggesting that we have evolved a sophisticated process to be gluten-ready in the upper digestive tract as well as in the mouth.
In the small intestine, a gluten (gliadin)-digesting enzyme called dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPP-IV) is produced to assist in the complete breakdown of allergenic proteins such as gluten (wheat, rye, barley) and casein (milk and dairy products). (5) Most active in the brush border of the duodenum, DPP-IV has been shown to completely break down the proline-containing epitope of gliadin, the primary allergenic protein in gluten. DPP-IV has also been shown to markedly enhance the gluten- and casein-degrading capacity of other protein-digesting enzymes. (3,4,5)
Gluten-digesting bacteria were also found in the large intestine, where they release enzymes called glutinases that also completely breakdown the hard-to-digest gliadins of gluten. The broken-down gluten proteins are used to feed the intestinal bacteria that produce gut-healthy short chain fatty acids (SCFA). These microbes are also able to provide fuel supply for other important bacteria in the gut. Any extra gluten is eliminated in the stool. (7,9)
If we have not evolved to digest wheat, it seems the body has developed a very elaborate system to make use of wheat in every aspect of our digestive systems.
Wheat Germ Agglutinin (WGA)
WGA is a type of lectin or anti-nutrient found on wheat that protects it from insects and decay while the seed lies on the ground waiting for the spring thaw, then to germinate. Every grain and seed on the planet, including rice, all beans, dairy and nightshades like tomatoes and potatoes, have lectins and other anti-nutrients that protect them. It does not seem reasonable that we should avoid all grains and beans, as rice and beans have been a staple for humanity for thousands of years. When evaluating the diet of the centenarian cultures, who regularly live to over 100 years, they consume all of the above lectin-rich foods. Perhaps we still have more to learn about the subtleties of the foods we eat.
While there are numerous claims labeling WGA and other lectins as toxic, inflammatory, neurotoxins, cancer-causing and a reason to avoid all grains, some studies are beginning to shift and improve our understanding.
For example, one study demonstrated that the WGA has beneficial effects on the gastrointestinal tract and have anti-tumor properties. In fact, researchers are looking at WGA as a possible active ingredient for new anti-cancer drugs. (10)
While popular opinion mounts against grains and WGA, there are compelling scientific arguments in support of grains. More compelling, in my opinion, is the breakdown of our digestive systems, which will render us increasingly intolerant to many more foods in the future, if we do not address the underlying issues.
On the flip side, with the consumption of wheat being linked to the prevention of colon cancers, obesity, cardiovascular issues, diverticulitis disease, constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (10), along with the fact that we have been digesting it for millions of years, it seems we are only beginning to understand wheat in its entirety.
There are many foods in most people’s daily diets that have either natural opioids or trigger an opioid response in the body. The question here: Are foods that we should be avoiding, or did Mother Nature put those opioids in foods so we will eat more of them?
Perhaps the most compelling argument suggesting that these food opiates may be important for the human race points to mother’s milk – which is loaded with morphine-like substances. Clearly, this was to ensure that an infant would keep coming back for more, and no doubt linked to our species survival.
On a side note, mother’s milk is sweet, which also triggers an opioid-brain response. While we have surely overshot the sugar runway with refined carbs and added sweeteners, the sweet taste for early humans was perhaps the world’s first insurance plan. If a foraged food tasted sweet, it was a safe bet that it wouldn’t kill you.
In one study, infants, who were fed a sugary substance while the adult stared at them in the eyes during feeding, made a mental note of the “sugar dealer.” Later, when a group of adults entered the room, the infant scanned the group and locked onto the sugar dealer – suggesting that the sugar-brain-survival pathway may be a human hardwire, aka the neighborhood ice cream truck frenzy for kids. (11)
The other foods that have natural opiates or trigger an opiate response are: Soy, spinach, rice, meat, fish, wheat, dairy, fruit, coffee and chocolate. (12) Are we to avoid all of these foods? Wheat and dairy opioids or exorphins, in particular, have been highly criticized for creating an addiction to these foods, while coffee and chocolate (which are more addictive) are touted as the new health foods. In fact, coffee has been recently endorsed by the FDA, suggesting numerous health benefits as long as you drink “less than five cups” per day. (13) See my article, “Coffee: The Good, The Bad, and the Ayurvedic Perspective” for more on this.
Many gluten-free experts make the case that it is the naturally-occurring wheat opioids that cause cravings, foods addictions, overeating and weight gain. For example, in the book, Wheat Belly, studies cite a significant reduction of wheat consumption when these opiates are blocked by an opioid-blocking drug.
But when you dig just a little deeper, you find that the consumption of meat was also blocked by up to 50 percent when meat-eaters were given the same opioid blocker. (15) In fact, there are numerous studies that found that the same opioid blockers reduce people’s total consumption of all food by 22 percent in one study (14,15), and 28 percent in another – suggesting that perhaps all foods trigger some sort of a pleasure opioid-like response that is linked to our survival and that we are hardwired to consume. (14)
The reality is that there are toxins in lots of the foods we eat, and we have been eating them and adapting to them for millions of years. The exorphins in wheat, if not completely digested, can cause some intestinal irritation, but it is also clear that we have the digestive power, microbes and enzymes to fully digest wheat – opioids and all. The problems seem to lie in inability for many folks to digest in the way we were designed, and this digestive breakdown, not wheat itself, is responsible for most of the gluten sensitivities people have today.
Roundup on Your Wheat – Buy Organic!
When glyphosate is ingested, studies have measured a reduction of the good bacteria and the overgrowth of harmful strains of bacteria in the gut. (16) These strains have been shown to irritate the intestinal wall and be a possible contributor to the intolerance of gluten. Exposure to glyphosate is insidious, as it causes a slow, steady, gradual alteration of the gut microbiome and inflammation of the intestinal tract. Gut bacteria have been shown to aid in digestion, protect the intestines from permeability and autoimmune conditions, boost immunity and synthesize vitamins. (17)
Research has linked GMO foods to decreased levels of the pancreatic enzyme precursor, zymogen, which is required for digesting hard-to-digest proteins. This study was done on mice who were fed GMO soybeans. (18) Without digestive enzymes, hard-to-digest proteins like gluten become much harder to digest.
To avoid glyphosate exposure: Buy organic wheat. I recommend ancient einkorn, emmer, KAMUT® khorasan wheat, or spelt, whenever possible.
But this alone is not enough – if you have food intolerances that have built up over time, you must also address the underlying intestinal and digestive issues incurred from years of Roundup-laced and GMO foods.