As I mentioned last week, celiac disease is a serious autoimmune reaction to wheat. It seems to have a genetic component, but it is not entirely genetic. We know this because its incidence rate has gone up in recent years, which genetic diseases will not do. A study in the journal Gastroenterology, which publishes studies on the digestive system, found that people today seem to be four times more likely to have a blood marker for celiac than from the 1940s and early 50s. One of the study’s authors commented that, “Celiac has become much more common in the last 50 years, and we don’t know why. Obviously human genes haven’t changed, but something has changed in our environment to make it much more common.”
Practitioners who work in nutrition also have commented on a seeming increase in patients who are gluten sensitive — a condition that is less well defined than celiac, with many varied symptoms — although I am not aware of any research on this.
Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist and author of the book “Wheat Belly,” thinks he may know why this increase is occurring. In his book, he reviews the recent history of the cross breeding of different strains of wheat in the 1940s that were largely responsible for the “green revolution.” Scientists took several strains of wheat and bred them together to improve yield, make the stalks shorter (the taller ones collapsed under the increased weight of the seed) and to have shorter growing times. They were very successful. The new strains of wheat now produce up to eight times more grain per acre.
But there may be a downside to all that cross breeding. Grains are unique in that cross breeding different strains can actually cause new proteins to appear in the offspring — this is especially true of the gluten proteins.
This may explain why some people with gluten sensitivity have fewer problems with the earlier types of wheat, like einkorn. With the newer breads, we are eating proteins that are completely new to us. This could certainly explain the uptick in celiac during the last 60 years.
Some researchers feel wheat has been a problem long before the “green revolution.” Loren Cordain, author of “The Paleo Diet” and creator of the website thepaleodiet.com writes about how a “paleopathologist,” a person who studies diseases of ancient humans, can tell if the bones of an ancient human are from someone who ate grains or not. The differences? The bones of the grain eaters are more osteoporotic, shorter, and the skulls are much less likely to have any teeth.
While it may be true that grains were crucial to the development of civilization, they may also be key contributors to the “diseases of civilization.” This is the collection of health problems we are familiar with, including Type 2 diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, obesity and other chronic diseases. They are relatively rare in native societies, but increasingly common in ours.
Despite the advice that grains are a great source of fiber, they actually contain much less fiber than most fruits and veggies (up to eight times less) and are really only a good source of one nutrient: calories, in the form of starch. Unfortunately, even whole grains have a relatively high glycemic index, which is the speed at which the food you eat raises blood sugar. Steak has a glycemic index of 15. According to some references, even whole wheat bread has a glycemic index ranging from 70 to 100, the same as pure glucose.
The other problem with grains is their poor omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acid ratios. Most grains have little to no omega 3s, but are high in the omega 6s. It has been estimated that our ancient ancestors (who ate few grains, as they require cultivation and processing) ate foods with a roughly 1:1 ratio of omega 3 to 6; current diets now average a 1:15 ratio. This imbalance has been shown to be linked with chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. The problem is compounded when we eat meat from animals that have been fed grains- wild meat has a good omega 3:6 ratio, farmed meat does not.
Another health-robbing trait that wheat has been accused of is making the lining of the walls of the intestines too porous and allowing materials into the body that are not fully digested. This sets off the immune system. The body sees this as an attack, so the immune system is in a chronic state of low level alert. The stage may then be set for autoimmune problems, or one of the many chronic diseases that are associated with long term inflammation.
I can certainly understand why many patients want to give up trying to figure out what to eat, and just go ahead and have whatever they want. But if you are having persistent chronic health problems, consider taking a break from wheat products for a few weeks and see what happens. For myself and many of my patients, the benefits have been well worth the change.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town.