Grains contain proteins such as glutens (yes, there’s more than 1 type) and amylase trypsin inhibitor (ATI) which can be highly inflammatory in the body. We are not going to isolate wheat and gluten in this article as too many people go ‘gluten-free’ and still don’t feel much better. All grains contain proteins that people may react to if they can’t digest it properly and many gluten-free foods are even worse in their ingredients listing than some wheat-based products. So ‘gluten-free’ is not always the answer.
GLUTEN AND FOOD SENSITIVITIES
Gluten is the better know protein that can cause digestive and gut issues by way of interfering or damaging the gap junctions on the mucosal surface of the gut wall. Gluten is not digested properly in the human gut. Gluten at best gets broken down into clumps called peptides but not further into amino acids due to lack of appropriate enzymes needed for this. These peptides are usually too big to cross the gut barrier, but will instead produce inflammation in the gut.
Imagine your gut wall as having these little doors that open and close in response to certain signals, allowing nutrients to pass from the digestive tract into the bloodstream. When these doors get damaged or stay open due to faulty signalling caused by cytotoxins or gliadin (gluten), it allows other things normally contained within the digestive system to pass through into the blood stream where immune cells stand guard. So you can get other food proteins, lipo-polysaccharides (LPS) from bacteria, gliotoxins from yeast, etc. all going through the door. The immune cells will recognise these as foreign and not where they are supposed to be, and react by triggering an inflammatory response both in the gut (stomach pain for instance) and elsewhere in the body (joint pain, depression, brain fog, skin rashes, muscle pain, endometriosis, etc.). Food intolerances originate from this immune response against food particles, first triggering IgM and then IgG immunoglobulins to rise.
Gluten is found in barley, rye, contaminated oats, wheat and spelt, but recently it was found that about 30% of all grains tested in the US were contaminated with gluten including rice, corn, quinoa, legumes, peanuts and beans. This cross-contamination often occurs during harvesting, drying and transportation. If you want to be 100% gluten free these days you have to check for labels on food that state ‘gluten free’ or even better ‘certified gluten free’ and avoid self-serve bins. However, in the majority of cases and in those people with good repair mechanisms just avoiding the main ones may be enough.
GRAINS AND SUGARS
So we’ve been fed the line that you need to cut out the simple sugars and eat more complex carbohydrates in the form of wholemeal bread and other grain products for weight loss and healthy blood sugar. But about 75% of wheat is amylopectin which is broken down by your salivary enzymes (amylase) into sugar. Yes, it will happen more slowly than having simple sugars, but it still ends up as sugar. This especially is important for those attempting ketogenic diets (Ketogenic Diet: How to do it right) or those who just can’t seem to get their blood sugar or cholesterol levels down even after eliminating simple sugars.
A quick note on Resistant Starches
All starches are composed of two types of polysaccharides:
- Amylopectin – This has a highly branched structure with a larger surface area for quicker digestion into sugar. This can spike blood sugar and insulin levels.
- Amylose – This is a straight chain structure with a smaller surface area and slower to digest. This predominates in resistant starches and reduces blood sugar, insulin and triglyceride blood levels.
See our handout on Resistant starch.
If we ignore the sugar content of grains for a minute and just take into consideration sensitivities to grains and gluten, we’re going to get the same problem but via a different pathway. Food sensitivities and the resulting stress on the gut and immune system will trigger cortisol release and spikes in blood sugar.
GRAINS AND AUTO-IMMUNE DISEASE
IgG immunoglogulins function as the ‘memory’ of the immune system. This is what your naturopathic practitioner will generally test for when looking at food intolerances. When it encounters the same substance again, it will know what to do. This is great, right? The problem is that these food particles (such as gliadins) and bacterial by-products can resemble other cells in the body such as thyroid, collagen, pancreatic cells, etc. in a phenomena called ‘molecular mimicry’. Over time as the immune system becomes more aggressive looking for these gliadins or other foreign molecules, antibodies may mistakenly attack normal healthy cells, characteristic of auto-immune disease. This is because as the immunoglobulins travel through the bloodstream at high speed looking for alpha-gliadin (as an example) it passes an organ such as the thyroid gland where fats and proteins on the thyroid gland is exposed to the bloodstream. The immunoglobulins are firing cytokines at these gliadin proteins in order to neutralize them. Some of the longer chains of proteins on the thyroid gland may contain sections that resemble gliadin proteins and the immunoglobulins, in its rush to attack gliadins, will fire cytokines in the direction of the thyroid (or any other organ) gland. This damages the thyroid and in a bid to remove these old and damaged cells to make way for new cells, the body makes antibodies as part of the ‘clean-up’ process. If you consume gluten morning, lunch and dinner you can imagine the war going on inside and the amount of antibodies created to try and clean up all the ‘dead bodies’. After a while this process becomes over-exagerated to try and keep up, and even once the war is finished it keeps on going.
This is how antibodies against ‘self’ is formed and how your auto-immune disease (rheumatoid arthritis, hashimoto’s, diabetes, etc.) can be linked back to your gut symptoms. An over-functioning immune system will also use up a ton of nutrients which may contribute to nutritional deficiencies. It may take some time, even after going gluten-free and the cytokine onslaught stops, before the immunoglobulins catches on that there’s nothing they need to clean up, but eventually antibodies will start to drop.
According to Dr. Tom O’Bryan if you are gluten sensitive and you have just one exposure to gluten (no matter the amount) it can raise your antibodies for up to 6 months! So having the ‘occasional’ gluten is just not an option in auto-immune disease. But in my opinion auto-immune disease is the one area where going gluten-free is not going to be enough. You have to commit to going completely grain-free if you have any desire in reversing your condition.
Just a quick mention that I’m not saying ALL auto-immune disease is due to gluten or just gluten. Anything can be a trigger, but since this article is about gluten and grains I wanted to emphasize its role in this growing epidemic.
GLUTEN, VITAMIN B12 AND METHYLATION
It is also now recognized that gluten can damage cells in your stomach that’s responsible for producing stomach acid, and produce antibodies against intrinsic factor. You need stomach acid to separate vitamin B12 from meat and then you need intrinsic factor to carry the B12 down to the distal small intestine or ileum where it can be absorbed. The ileum is one of the most vulnerable areas in the digestive system to gluten damage where you can get scarring and villious atrophy, further diminishing B12 absorption.
In Dr. Peter Osborne’s experience after many years of lymphocyte-nutrient testing, vitamin B12 deficiency is more common in gluten sensitivities than iron or zinc deficiency. Vitamin B12 is essential for the methylation cycle to function, and snips on B12 genes will make this scenario even worse.
GLUTEN AND ANXIETY
As just explained gluten and grains (lectins) have been linked to auto-immunity such as Hashimoto’s thyroid disease and glutamate decarboxylase GAD antibodies.
Gluten antibodies can attach to areas in the cerebellum such as the purkinje cells and GAD65 (Glutamic Acid Decarboxylase 65). GAD is the enzyme that converts excess glutamates (excitatory) to GABA (inhibitory). When GAD is not working properly glutamate is allowed to accumulate in the body with different effects. In the brain excess glutamate can result in over-stimulation of the brain, problems with sleep, anxiety issues, over-analyzing everything, ADHD and keeps you in your head. GAD antibodies has also been linked to schizophrenia.
Attachment of these antibodies to brain areas may cause brain degeneration, also called ‘gluten ataxia’, and breakdown of the blood brain barrier making the brain more susceptible to inflammation from T-cells entering the brain and auto-immune reactions. Eventually the body can make antibodies to the brain itself, such as myelin or cerebellar antibodies, causing further brain degeneration and neurological symptoms.
GLUTEN AND DIABETES
So we’ve already talked about the link between grain and auto-immune disease, and if gluten can trigger antibodies to glutamate decarboxylase (GAD) then it may very well contribute to insulin-dependent diabetes melitus (IDDM). Excessive inflammation and cytokine production can damage the pancreatic beta cells and GAD enzymes which may reduce insulin release when it is needed with higher blood sugar levels.
GENETIC MODIFICATION OF GRAINS
You know, we have this idea that genetic modification of foods is a very specific and carefully constructed event, when in fact it isn’t really. They use what is called a gene gun where DNA is blasted from one organism to another in a very unstructured and potentially unstable manner. A substance in grains shuts the pancreas down and therefore inhibits the production of pancreatic enzymes. This further slow the break down of grain products making it easier to damage the gut. The purpose of genetic modification of food is to make it more resilient, and this includes being more resilient to digestion in the gut.
GMO foods are created to be more resistant to pesticides and herbacides, so you already know 100% that your GMO food is going to be soaked in these chemicals. Industry practice has shown that these chemicals are sprayed in larger amounts than ever after GMO introduction, not less as was promised.
The other concern about genetic modification is the potential for horizontal gene transfer back into the human body once these foods are consumed. There is no guarantee that this genetic material is stable and could be transferred into our gut bacteria and turn previously commensal organisms into more virulant strains. Corn has now been genetically modified to produce its own pesticide, the BT toxin, to control Lepidoptera larvae or caterpillars. You can read more about this at BT-Corn: What it is and how it works. Horizontal gene transfer has already been shown to occur in bartonella with agrobacterium and bartonella which often co-exists with Lyme disease. So if someone with Lyme who may already have horizontal gene transfer taking place in their body consume genetically modified corn products and this gets horizontally transferred into their gut microbiome or even worse their own cells, the potential for producing pesticides within your own body is very real and absolutely terrifying.
And whilst we’re talking about genetic expression, the intention with genetic modification is to switch certain promoter genes on, but it’s very possible that other genes within the sequence also get turned on without knowing the ramifications of this. Combine this with horizontal gene transfer into our own DNA and we have some seriously legitimate concerns that need to be addressed.
Produce likely to be genetically modified: cotton, soy, corn, canola, zucchini, yellow squash, sugar beets. These all need to be checked for non-GMO certification. In the near future (at the time of writing) this list will also include alfalfa, salmon and apples. It is a bit of a diversion from grains but I think is worth mentioning here.
AMYLASE TRYPSIN INHIBITOR (ATI) AND INFLAMMATION
Toll-like Receptors (TLR’s) are situated on the cell surface of the mucosal cells lining the gut wall. ATI’s interfere with these TLR’s and cause inflammation.
GRAINS AND OTHER TOXINS
Most non-organic grains grown today are soaked with pesticides and weed-killers before harvesting such as round-up (glyphosate) and atrozine. They can also contain metals (arsenic, cadmium, lead, etc.) and be a source of mold and fungi. When someone reacts to grains, it can be a reaction to any of these including the proteins. These pesticides and chemicals will also wreck your gut microbiome and thus your ability to digest food (and grains!) and make nutrients such as B vitamins.
GRAINS AND FORTIFICATION
You have to ask yourself the question why commercial grain products have to be fortified with B vitamins, iron, folate, etc. if it’s supposed to be so nutritious for us. It turns out that not only is it nutrient deficient, but also can deplete you of many important nutrients, which is why it was banned for a period of time in 1943 by the government until laws came into place making fortification mandatory.
GRAINS AND FOOD PROTEIN INDUCED ENTEROCOLITIS (FPIES)
The most common cause of FPIES is rice, commonly one of the first foods babies are exposed to through rice cereals. This is made even worse when non-organic rice products are consumed which are typically high in arsenic and cadmium, as well as pesticides.
GLUTEN AND NON-CELIAC GLUTEN SENSITIVITY (NCGS)
This is a recognized syndrome where those without celiac disease or wheat allergies respond to the removal of gluten from the diet in a positive way, which is just really a fancy name for gluten intolerance. But what’s interesting is that it’s now being acknowledged what we’ve known for a long time, and that is the vast amount of mental health problems that can now be linked to gluten sensitivity, such as autism, schizophrenia, depression, hallucinations and psychosis. So don’t always rely on medical tests to initiate lifestyle changes. It’s simply numbers on paper and in the end it is how you feel that’s the really important part. A good example is not testing for the right markers. I can tell you that there are many ways to test for gluten sensitivities and they all have their limitations. If you do all the tests (which is never going to happen) then you’ll probably get your answer, but it’s more likely your practitioner will choose one of the testing options, and if it comes back negative, tell you that it’s all good and you can continue eating glutinous foods. The problem is that the test would have only looked at one aspect of the gluten reaction and missed many other pathways this protein can be involved in.
An interesting study showed that NCGS is 6x more prevalent than coeliac disease. NCGS does not show up with the villous atrophy that coeliac’s do, but they can test positive for antibodies to gliadin [R].
PROBLEMS WITH TESTING
Most labs look at alpha-gliadin as a blood marker for gluten sensitivity. Alpha-gliadin is a clump of 33 amino acids which can cross the damaged gut barrier into the bloodstream where it gets measured. So pretty evident of a damaged digestive system and a gluten/wheat issue. Unfortunately alpha-gliadin is only one of about 62 peptides currently identified as causing an immune response and its associated problems. Some of them are smaller which means they can be missed if the damage to the gut wall is not yet big enough to allow this larger alpha-gliadin molecule through. So it’s important to not just dismiss gluten sensitivity just because your standard GP blood test have returned negative results. Getting more comprehensive testing done would be necessary to get a more accurate result but at the time of writing the only lab providing this test is a blood draw done by Cyrex Laboratories in the US which doesn’t help our Australian clients much. The point is to not rely on a blood test to rule out gluten sensitivity.
WHAT ABOUT WHEAT GRASS?
This one confuses a lot of people with differing opinions on whether wheatgrass juice contains gluten or not, being the sprout and not the seed. Well, here is our answer. When wheatgrass starts to bud from the seed it switches on genes to make protein for the growth of the plant. By about day 17 the wheatgrass will already contain protein. So if you harvest your wheatgrass before this time, maybe around day 11 or so, it won’t contain protein and should be safe for those with gluten sensitivity. Commercial wheatgrass juice could be grown for much longer in order to get the highest yield out of the batch so it’s better to make your own.
GRAINS AND OTHER INFECTIONS
When you are grain sensitive and suffer absorption problems in the digestive system as a consequence, the following happens:
- You fail to provide your immune system with the nutrients (zinc, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, iron, etc.) it needs to function.
- You overtax the immune system through the inflammation this creates.
- You become more vulnerable to other infections – viruses, bacteria, parasites, yeasts, etc.
- Your immune system is not strong enough to deal with the infections and the food reactions at the same time.
This is why it’s so important to remove inflammatory foods when you are battling chronic infections such as Ross River Fever, Borrelia (Lyme disease), chronic candida, parasitic infections. Your immune system needs to be focussed with all hands on deck.
The documentary ‘What’s With Wheat?’ is a real eye opener and definitely worthwhile watching:
Other good resources to look at:
No Grain No Pain by Dr. Peter Osborne
The Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis
The Gluten Summit by Dr. Tom O’Bryan
If you need guidance in the treatment of this or any other condition, please make an appointment with one of our practitioners.
This article is for information purposes only. Please refer to our Medical Disclaimer policy for more information. The opinions expressed here represents the author’s and not necessarily those of Realize Health. In addition, thoughts and opinions change from time to time due to updates in research and as a necessary consequence of having an open mind. Views expressed in out-of-date posts may not be the same to those we hold today.
Gluten sensitivity as a neurological illness; J.Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 2002;72:560-563
Wheat Gluten as a Pathogenic Factor in Schizophrenia; Man Mohan Singh and Stanley R. Kay. Science Vol. 191, No.4225 (Jan. 30, 1976), pp. 401