Listen - I know, a TON has been written about wheat and gluten over the last few years and how terrible they are. Given this huge volume and poor quality of some of what has been written on the topic, you could be forgiven for writing it off as a fad or some type of self-perpetuating media-hype.
But - new research continues to come out showing us new ways in which wheat negatively impacts our health. Previously, arguments against wheat all hinged around whether or not a given individual was "intolerant" or "sensitive" to gluten, the primary protein in wheat. The newer research has implications that cast a much bigger net. We now know that no longer do you need to be "intolerant" of gluten for wheat to have serious negative impacts (like slowing your brain and making you fat).
The Old Anti-Wheat Paradigm
The idea of "gluten intolerance" is that for some percentage of people, the presence of gluten in the gut creates an immune response. The immune response in turn creates inflammation in the gut resulting in depressed absorption of nutrients, poor digestion and general low energy among other symptoms. This mechanism is similar to, but less dramatic than, the way gluten affects the gut of someone with Celiac's disease.
It's estimated that about 1% of the population has full-on Celiac's, while 6-10% of the population have a gluten intolerance. I (and many others in the health/nutrition world) have long suspected that the latter number is actually a lot higher. This newer research indicates that we were on to something in that suspicion, but perhaps slightly off the mark. The vast majority of people are indeed impacted negatively by wheat, just by different mechanisms as it turns out.
New Research #1 - Wheat Breaks Down Gut Lining, Creates Immune Response
This is the real ground-breaker. This new research shows how it's possible for gluten to indirectly cause an immune response for anyone regardless of if you have a specific sensitivity to gluten or not. To quote the paper:
"Based on our results, we concluded that gliadin activates zonulin signaling irrespective of the genetic expression of autoimmunity, leading to increased intestinal permeability to macromolecules..."
Let's break this overly-academic sentence down. Gliadin is part of what gluten breaks down to in the gut. Zonulin signaling is a regulatory process that occurs in the gut in response to some foods. Throughout the whole of our intestinal tract, there is a very thin lining of cells called the epithelium. When working properly, the epithelium is a tight barrier - making sure food, bacteria and toxins in our gut stay in our gut and only digested nutrients cross into our bloodstream. When the Zonulin signaling pathway is triggered, it causes the cells that make up our epithelium to separate a bit. When this happens, the epithelium is no longer a tight barrier and undigested particles from our food can slip into our bloodstream. This is what the researchers are referring to when they say "increased intestinal permeability to macromolecules."
So what does this mean? When you eat gluten on a regular basis, it will slowly break damage your epithelium allowing undigested food particles to slip into your bloodstream. Your immune system will react to some of these particles as "threats". This creates a constant low-level immune response, which in turn creates low-level systemic inflammation and all of the damaging effects that come with it.
There is a long-standing adage in medicine "inflammation is the root of all disease". While this may be slightly over-simplifying things, we do know that systemic inflammation has negative hormonal effects that cause the body to gain weight (fat). We also know that systemic inflammation can decrease blood-flow to certain areas of the brain, resulting in diminished cognitive performance. Speaking more generally, though, inflammation just sucks. Your body doesn't feel as good and you're likely to experience lower energy levels. Preventing inflammation whenever possible is a key to feeling good and performing at a high level.
New Research #2 - Wheat Creates Neurological Inflammation
A certain amount of neurological inflammation will be produced as a result of systemic inflammation. Troublingly, wheat has still another mechanism by which it causes issues for the brain. The first of this research was done a while ago (1996), but newer research has caused us to go back and re-evaluate the implications.
At the center of the issue is wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), a protein found in small quantities in wheat. The first study showed that WGA can cross the blood-brain barrier in-tact and then bind to neurons once in the brain. Newer research has shown us just how pro-inflammatory WGA actually is, and thus cast the initial study in a new light. WGA is now considered by many to be a full-on neurotoxin.
It's true that WGA is present in very small amounts in wheat. That being said, consuming wheat on anything close to a regular basis will allow WGA to accumulate in the body and the neurotoxic effects of WGA will be magnified as a result.
New Research #3 - Toxic Molds
This is something I mention frequently in articles I write for Synchro, as I believe it to be a vastly under-respected topic in health/nutrition that has huge health repercussions.
We're realizing that mold contamination is a frighteningly common problem for a lot of foods we eat. Of course, anything visibly moldy in the harvest/storage process gets thrown out, but it's not just the mold itself that we're concerned with. Molds produce mycotoxins, toxic organic chemicals released by the mold to poison other fungus or bacteria in the environment, allowing the original mold to grow free of competition. Mycotoxins will spread far beyond the product that visibly has mold contamination, meaning throwing out the moldy sections does little to remove these toxic chemicals. (and a lot of times the mold is too small and spread out to even be recognized)
Extensive research has shown us these mycotoxins are very disruptive in the body and brain. They are strongly pro-inflammatory, meaning regular exposure will lead to (again) systemic inflammation. Mycotoxins are also known to be carcinogenic, neurotoxic and hormone disruptors.
This is far from a problem that's unique to wheat, but wheat is one of the biggest "danger foods" for mycotoxin contamination. Some years, testing will show up to 80% of US wheat crops as positive for mycotoxin contamination.
For more on the mycotoxin issue, check out this past article.
New Research #4 - Wheat Promotes Insulin Resistance (and makes us fat)
This research was recently popularized by Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly, a book detailing (you guessed it), all the ways wheat makes us fat. The issue is that wheat contains a specific polysaccharide called Amylopectin A that research has shown to promote insulin resistance. Insulin is the primary hormone responsible for regulating blood sugar and fat storage in our bodies. When we our cells become resistant to insulin, our blood sugar levels go through more dramatic spikes and falls, resulting in greater fat storage, lower energy levels and impaired mental function. More advanced insulin resistance is referred to medically as Type-II diabetes.
Older, But Overlooked (And Creepy) Research
Perhaps the creepiest research around wheat is the studies that show gluten breakdown products working on opioid receptors in the brain. While opioid receptor interaction itself isn't immediately all that troubling for me, it does show another reason why our society has been so attached to wheat for so long - and perhaps why people are so resistant to give it up despite the mountain of evidence that wheat is terrible for us. At a neurochemical level, cutting wheat out of your diet is not that dissimilar to quitting a mild opiate habit. Creepy...