Tag Archives: Wheat Belly

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

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Wheat: The New Strychnine?

Everyone seems to be giving up gluten these days (and bragging about it). But we’ve been eating it for thousands of years, right? Good, whole-grain wheat is supposed to be healthy, and the government wants us to eat more of it.

Wheat sensitivities run the gamut from low-level inflammation that we don’t even notice to celiac disease, which is fatal if the sufferer does not give up eating gluten. I have friends and acquaintances who have given up wheat and lost weight effortlessly without changing anything else they are doing. They also report the disappearance of joint pain, skin rashes, muscular pain, diarrhea, and more.

Dr. William Davis, MD, author of “Wheat Belly,” makes the case that the wheat we eat today bears little resemblance to the wheat our ancestors consumed. He says that modern wheat contains the complete genomes of three different but related plants, and contains complex proteins (gluten is a protein) that ancestral varieties did not. Our gut has not evolved as quickly as wheat has due to modern genetic engineering. Also, modern wheat—uniquely among foods—has the ability to pass the blood-brain barrier, and thus can tinker with bodily mechanism and brain function in a way no other food can.

Dr. Davis cites many different studies to provide evidence that his assertions are valid. He also notes that the rise of obesity in America tracks precisely the advent of genetic modification of the wheat genome. (He doesn’t mention this, but it also precisely tracks the widespread introduction of high-fructose corn syrup that has become so ubiquitous in processed food since the 1970s.) Modern wheat, developed by Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace prize for his work on wheat, was crafted with the best of intentions in mind: alleviation of world hunger. It is a high-yield, short-growing-season dwarf wheat, and it has in fact done much toward alleviating world hunger. Apparently, it’s also making us sick.

The good doctor performed an experiment on himself to test his assertion about the pernicious effect of modern wheat versus ancestral wheat. He is highly wheat-sensitive himself. Somewhere, he managed to obtain two pounds of einkorn, probably the first form of cultivated wheat. He also obtained two pounds of modern wheat. He ground these two grains himself and made bread, using only flour, water, salt and yeast. He tried the einkorn bread. It was denser than modern bread, and had a rich, nutty flavor. He had no reaction at all. He tried the modern wheat bread—and was ill for 36 hours, nauseated and unable to focus.

Being a scientist, he also did blood tests before and after eating the breads. His blood sugar before eating either bread was 84 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl). After eating the einkorn bread, his blood sugar was 110 mg/dl. After eating the modern wheat bread, it was 167 mg/dl. He points out that one slice of whole wheat bread will raise blood sugar significantly higher than a Snickers bar.

High blood sugar, as we all know, leads to insulin resistance, which leads to gaining weight and may eventually cause diabetes. According to Dr. Davis, we’ve been virtuously munching away on something that is making us very ill.

“Wheat Belly” is an interesting book, well written, credible, and even entertaining. It is probably an exaggeration to claim that wheat is solely responsible for everything from joint pain to schizophrenia, however. There are certainly other trends in modern life (can we blame computers?) that contribute to the surge in obesity. But if even part of what Dr. Davis claims is true (and he does have the facts and figures), giving up wheat may be part of a sensible weight-loss and weight-loss-maintenance plan—along with exercise, portion control and common sense. There are other grains that don’t present the same problems, including quinoa, sorghum, buckwheat, millet, and oats (especially oats harvested in the British Isles, where it is less likely to be contaminated by coming into contact with machinery that is also used to process wheat).

Don’t forget that other food sensitivities can play a role in weight by causing low-level inflammation that spurs fat storage and the growth of fat cells. Stress can have the same effect, so stress management is another critical aspect of successful weight loss.

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