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There are many foods that have either natural opioids or trigger an opioid-like response in the body that most people eat daily. The question is whether these are foods that we should be avoiding, or did Mother Nature put those opioids in foods so that we will eat more of them?
Perhaps the most compelling argument suggesting that these food opiates may be important for humans 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 the survival of our species.
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” of sorts. If a foraged food tasted sweet, it was a safe bet that it wouldn’t kill you.
In one study, infants were fed a sugary substance while an adult stared at them in the eyes during the feeding. The infants 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 hard-wire, liken to the neighborhood ice cream truck frenzy for kids. (1)
The other foods that have natural opiates or trigger an opiate response are: Soy, spinach, rice, meat, fish, wheat, dairy, fruit, coffee and chocolate. (2) Are we to avoid all of these foods? Wheat and dairy opioids, or exorphins specifically, 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. (3) 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. (5) 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 (6), and 28 percent in another, suggesting that perhaps all foods trigger some sort of an opioid-like pleasure response that is linked to our survival and that we are hard-wired to consume. (7)
The reality is that there are various types of 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 seems to lie in the 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 of today.
As I cite in my new book, Eat Wheat, we have millions of years of evolution (not just 10,000) that suggest that we are well-equipped to digest wheat. There is quite an involved digestive process that allows humans to fully break down gluten and its so-called “toxic” opioid constituents. The enzyme DPP-IV, for example, is a naturally-occurring enzyme that is found in the mouth saliva, small intestines and intestinal lymph that can completely breakdown gluten and its opioid exorphins. (8,9) There are also gluten-digesting enzymes and microbes found throughout the digestive tract all the way from the mouth to the anus.
Join me in Eat Wheat, where I take you step-by-step to reboot all of these powerful digestive pathways.