Wheat has received a rising volume of attention over the past few years, as understanding of the central role of the gut in overall health has been introduced into Western culture. Many people now cite the benefits of eliminating wheat or gluten from their diet – it is a therapeutic approach I both frequently recommend and abide by myself. In this post, I’ll explain a little bit about the history of wheat, what modern wheat does in the body and why it may be beneficial to try elimination.
Wheat is Cheap
Anyone who has already tried gluten-free knows that wheat seems to creep its way into just about everything. And there’s a reason. Wheat is a cereal grain and one of the first cereal crops to have been domesticated. Since its first known origins around 7500 BC, the production of this versatile crop has ballooned as civilisations have developed. Wheat is now grown on more than 216 million hectares, making it the world’s largest commercially produced crop. Worldwide wheat production for 2017 is estimated at over 752 million tonnes, which explains why so many of our food products are full of it.
So What’s Wrong with Eating Wheat?
Nothing! In its unrefined whole grain form, wheat is nutritionally dense, serving as an excellent source of fibre and minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. The benefits of wheat include nutritional effects derived from composition, mechanical effects on the gastrointestinal tract due to fibre and antioxidant effects arising from the presence of phytonutrients. Given the benefits of availability and health promotion, wheat and its derived products seems an excellent food choice. But unfortunately, unrefined whole grain wheat is not the stuff grown in our fields or put on our plates.
Commercial Wheat is Empty
Wheat now poses hazard to overall health because of the way modern manufacturing process has impacted its composition. The logistics required to produce a crop that appears so widely in the majority of commercially-available products have meant massive changes to the way that wheat is grown and processed.
In the 1870s, the invention of the steel roller mill revolutionised grain milling by allowing producers to separate the component parts of grains rather than simply mashing them together. This allowed the purest, finest white flour to be easily produced at a low cost. Rid of anything living that might spoil, this white flour shipped more easily, had an almost unending shelf life and was much more resistant to pest control.
While the food industry celebrated their advance, the quest to produce perfect white flour had succeeded by eliminating the portions of the wheat kernel richest in proteins, vitamins, lipids and minerals – all the living nutrients! From a nutritional perspective, modern refined white flour offers little more than empty calories and insulin resistance.
Frankengrain: Genetic Modification
With the rise of factory production, human population and mass industry, a later revolution also came to bear on the integrity of modern-day wheat. In the 1950s and 60s, chemical and genetic technologies were invented and applied to crop production. This involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, distribution of hybridized seeds and issue of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to farmers.
A new, ‘improved’ species of semi-dwarf wheat was introduced along with complimentary fertilizers and pesticides such as Roundup, which proved to be an incredible combination for raising production yield. It was also possible to increase the content of protein composite gluten in wheat strains for better ‘baking properties’.
These food engineering efforts were applauded at the time as means to ‘end world hunger’ but as instances of chronic digestive, autoimmune and inflammatory illnesses rise, the effects of these revolutionary manufacturing steps are beginning to become evident.
Developments in growing wheat have focused solely on production efficiency rather than nutritional integrity. The modern day wheat that has permeated our supermarket products has been genetically manipulated, grown in synthetic soil, bathed in chemicals and stripped of all its beneficial components through refinement and artificial enrichment. And then we eat it!
Modern Wheat in a Modern Body
As the production and composition of wheat changed over time, so did its effects on our body. The most widely recognised and publicised indicator of this change lies with gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, a composite of gliadin and glutenin. Gluten gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise, keep its shape and give the end product a chewy texture.
In understanding the impact of gluten on the body, it is important to note that the gut does more than absorb nutrients from food into the bloodstream. 80% of our immune system cells are also found in the gut. These cells lie beneath the delicate, one-cell thick gut surface and serve as barrier determinant of self and non-self. It is these immune cells that educate the body about what to attack in order to fend off disease and maintain health.
Certain nutrient molecules are too small to pass from the gut wall into the bloodstream via diffusion. In order to traffic them across the gut barrier reacts to an agent called zonulin, which acts as a facilitator in opening the tiny spaces between gut cells to make the gut barrier temporarily permeable.
The issue with gluten lies in the fact that the release of zonulin is triggered by gliadin, part of the gluten composite. Consuming unnaturally high levels of wheat indiscriminately increases gut barrier permeability on a regular basis. With gaps between the cells forced open, waste and toxins travelling through the gut breech the gut wall into the bloodstream activating the immune system – a phenomenon commonly known as ‘leaky gut syndrome.
Leaky Gut & Immunity
This reaction to gluten causes systemic inflammation of the gut wall as the innate immune system attacks the unwanted substances, resulting in the common symptoms of cramping and bloating often associated with wheat consumption and indicative of gluten intolerance/sensitivity. Toxins leak into the bloodstream, causing brain fog and lethargy and placing increasing pressure on the liver and kidneys. The immune system struggles to distinguish self from invader and becomes overwhelmed, leading to increased incidences of colds, viruses, infections and illness.
In some individuals, when the gut wall is compromised the immune system attacks not only the gluten proteins but also attacks an enzyme in the cells of the digestive tract called tissue transglutaminase. Over time, the long-game adaptive immune system is alerted and creates complex autoimmune responses – essentially the body marks its own gut cells as a harmful invader and begins systemic attacks on them. This reaction marks the most severe form of gluten sensitivity, known as coeliac disease – a type of autoimmune disorder.
The coeliac immune reaction causes degeneration of the intestinal wall, which leads to nutrient deficiencies, digestive complications, anaemia, fatigue, failure to thrive as well as an increased risk of more chronic illnesses. There is a wealth of studies that show a strong statistical association between gluten and a range of autoimmune diseases, including hashimotos thyroiditis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and lupus.
Give Your Gut a Break
If you are looking to improve your diet, mental clarity, concentration, immunity, digestive health, bloating or energy levels I encourage you to do a one month trial eliminating wheat from your diet. Here are some tips to get you going:
- If going cold turkey seems too intense then cut down slowly – pick one or two days in the week to go wheat-free or half your current consumption, get comfortable then half again
- Use this opportunity to explore new grains – many contain low/no gluten such as millet, quinoa, amaranth and rice. Organic whole grains are rich fibre and an array of vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins and iron
- There are loads of wheat/gluten-free products available in local supermarkets now so enjoy finding substitutes! Make porridge for breakfast. Use wheat-free pasta or rice noodles. Substitute bread with rye bread, oat cakes, rice cakes or wheat-free (only good for toasting)
- Replace your gluten-rich foods with colon-friendly foods to give your gut a boost. Short grain brown rice, cauliflower, celery, cabbage, cucumber, lettuce, onions, corn, figs, garlic and organic apple cider vinegar are all highly healing and supportive for the gut
I hope this post helped to explain why wheat and gluten free diets have become so prevalent over the past years and how the gut is central to overall wellness. If you have comments or questions feel free to post below or get in touch.
Isabel Ocaña PDNN is a qualified Naturopathic Nutritionist and member of the Naturopathic Nutrition Association. Her journey into wellness began when she sought alternative healing approaches to battle her own disordered eating and anxiety. Learning simple, natural ways to heal inspired Isabel to retrain as a nutritionist, share her education and empower others to live healthy, symptom-free lives.