Wheat Can Make You Crazy? That’s Crazy. Isn’t It?

Our last post, “Wheat: The New Strychnine?” enjoyed enormous popularity, pointing up how concerned people have become with the potential health risks of wheat.

In addition to obesity (in particular the disproportionate distribution of fat to the belly, which is a marker for potential cardiac disease), joint pain, digestive issues, headaches, etc. mentioned by Dr. William Davis in his book, “Wheat Belly,” he claims that wheat can exacerbate serious mental illness such as schizophrenia in some people.

We didn’t mention this in our last blog because we wanted to look further into this alarming claim. It seemed just a tad too far-fetched that mental illness could be worsened just by eating toast and pasta and cured by giving up wheat. It sounded too much like the proverbial snake-oil salesman: “Cures gout, eczema, female troubles of all kind! Does away with thinning hair, cures arthritis and will make your children grow strong and tall!” So we did a bit of looking around the Internet to see if anyone’s come up with substantive proof that wheat can affect mental health.

Dr. Davis claims that, unique among foods (although there is evidence that milk has the same property), wheat can cross the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier refers to a mechanism of the central nervous system that prevents microscopic particles from passing into the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain. This is a very good thing; otherwise, our brain would come under attack by bacteria, which would multiply like wildfire in the ideal growth medium supplied by this fluid. When the blood-brain barrier is breached, as in the case of spirochetes which physically bore through the blood vessel walls to reach the central nervous system, the result can be life-threatening, like syphilis or Lyme Disease.

Wheat is able to cross this tough barrier because when wheat gluten is exposed to pepsin, a stomach acid that helps break down food, the gluten is degraded into a variety of polypeptides, which are basically short-chain proteins. In a study at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), these polypeptides were found to cross the blood-brain barrier in rats. Because the polypeptides look to the brain’s receptors like endorphins (the naturally-produced proteins that produce “runner’s high” and act like opioids), the wheat polypeptides bond readily to the brain.

And what do they do when they reach the brain? Researchers in the mid-1960s at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Philadelphia decided to remove all wheat products from the diets of schizophrenic patients. Four weeks later, there was a marked reduction in schizophrenic symptoms such as hallucinations. When wheat was returned to the diet, the symptoms likewise re-emerged. Other instances of improvement or even cures of schizophrenia exist in the scientific literature, such as a study published in 2003 that explored the possible connection between celiac disease and schizophrenia. (Huebner et al)

Obviously, not everyone who eats wheat succumbs to schizophrenia. However, it does mean that wheat can tweak your brain as well as your body. A Danish study of 55 autistic children showed marked improvement in autistic behaviors with the elimination of wheat gluten and casein from milk products. Wheat is not suspected as the cause, but it apparently worsens conditions in people with schizophrenia, autism and celiac disease.

So what does wheat do to the psyche of a normal, healthy individual? There don’t appear to be any studies of this (at least none that we could find, which is not the same thing). Dr. Davis says that the endorphin-like polypeptides set up a reward response; eat wheat, and your brain feels good. Your subconscious likes that, so it tells you to eat more wheat. In a study done at the Psychiatric Institute of North Carolina, wheat-eating subjects were given an opiate blocker, naloxone. These subjects consumed approximately 400 fewer calories over the course of lunch and dinner than the control group. Can you envision what 400 fewer calories a day might do for your waistline? Further, when wheat is withdrawn, many people feel strong cravings for bread, crackers, and other wheat-containing foods, so there is such a thing as “wheat withdrawal” for some.

So in effect, wheat acts like a little devil on one shoulder, urging you to eat more, while the little angel of your better self gets knocked off his perch.

This entire topic again illustrates how our physical and mental selves are inextricably interconnected; you can’t tinker with one without affecting the other just as strongly. As we have mentioned before in this blog (see “Five Things You Didn’t Know About Losing Weight”), purely mental stress can cause you to gain and retain weight through the action of cortisol and other stress hormones. Reducing stress should be an essential component of a weight-loss effort—and apparently, so is losing the wheat.

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Addendum: The Wall Street Journaljust published an article on the dangers of gluten in schools. Act fast, because this URL expires in a few days: http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10000872396390444840104577549350524941964-lMyQjAxMTAyMDAwNjAwODY3Wj.html?mod=wsj_valetleft_email

Feeling stressed? Download SweetBeat™, the iPhone stress management app: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/sweetbeat/id492588712?mt=8

 

 

 

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9 Responses to Wheat Can Make You Crazy? That’s Crazy. Isn’t It?

  1. Excellent post, Kathy, now I know why I’m crazy ;-) But seriously, eating wheat doesn’t agree with my body and I never knew it was the wheat or why until a few years ago. Thank you for touching on this undervalued subject.

    I’m wondering if spirochetes are also play an active part in candida?

  2. Jennifer says:

    Funny you should mention spirochetes- I have Lyme disease and its’ psychiatric manifestations tend to get much worse when I include wheat in my diet.

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  4. Mary says:

    I brought up this very fact at a Multiple Sclerosis education dinner last night! I too read the book Wheat Belly, and while it is an interesting book, the one thing I do remember is that there is a protein in wheat that crosses the blood-brain barrier. That just jumped right out of the page on me!!! That is an important fact for me as an MS patient as we have certain destroying cells, that normally can’t enter the blood-brain barrier, gain entry– and cause demylination of our nerve cells, thus MS lesions on the brain and spinal cord!

    There is a diet in the MS Community, The Swank diet, which is very extreme, but does include ridding yourself of wheat,( and nearly every desirable food known to man.) I never did it, but people on it have had a hugh turn around in their MS. What I did do, however, is recently go back on the Atkins Diet for the first time since my MS diagnosis in 2005. All I can say is that within 4 days, many if not MOST of my MS symptoms subsided! Could this protein in wheat cause damage to certain individuals who have no other wheat symptoms, that then allow for the demyliniation of nerve cells and thus MS? I am Italian, and the thought of giving up pasta and Italian bread is unthinkable! But, I will do so if I can keep feeling as good as I feel now!

    • sweetwaterhrv says:

      Mary, I don’t know if the Atkins diet helps your MS–but if you continue to feel better, I’d say, stick with it. I gave up wheat entirely for several months myself after reading “Wheat Belly.” I can’t say I lost weight or felt better, but I did find a number of substitutes for the wheat I was consuming, and actually wound up preferring the substitutes! My husband and I are still avoiding but not entirely eliminating wheat at present. I will be interested to see if there is any impact on our blood glucose levels.

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