Gluten Sensitivity

Christina Carreau BA, ND

Bread and other foods made of wheat have sustained humans for centuries. It has become a perceived ‘essential’ part of our diet here in North America and is often consumed in excessive amounts. I see this over and over again when looking at diet diaries: cereal or toast for breakfast, a sandwich or wrap for lunch and pizza or pasta for supper, not to mention the wheat containing snacks throughout the day muffins, cookies, crackers, bagels, etc. What’s the big deal? Aren’t whole grains healthy for us?

Dr. William Davis, a preventive cardiologist in the United States recently published a book entitled ‘Wheat Belly’. He discovered through putting his patients on a wheat free diet for three to six months that,

“their blood sugars and HbA1c (a measure of prior 60 days blood sugar) were much lower, even to the point at which some diabetics were no longer diabetic. They lost 30 pounds, lost 4 inches from their waist, felt better than they had in 20 years with more energy, less moodiness and deeper sleep. That they experienced complete relief from acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine headaches, hand and finger arthritis and joint pain, sinus congestion and chronic sinus infections. Their asthma improved so much that they threw away their inhalers, their rheumatoid arthritis was so much better they were in the process of reducing medication, their ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s had improved so much that no medication was required any longer, their leg edema had disappeared and rashes were gone.”

These are drastic health improvements for such a short period of time. I think we need to re-evaluate wheat, this so called ‘healthy whole grain’.

Health Implications of Genetically Modified Wheat

When it comes to genetic modification of food, I think the most important thing to understand is that the goal of genetic modification is seldom to enhance the nutritive value of a food. It is often done for financial gains of large food corporations.  This was the case with wheat along with a number of other foods (ie corn, rice, etc.)

In the last 50 years wheat strains have been manipulated by agricultural scientists to increase yields per acre and to make crops more resistant to environmental conditions (ie. pathogens, drought, etc.). While these grains may look and taste the same, these biochemical structural changes have made wheat, more specifically, gluten and gliadin (proteins found in wheat and other grains) and amylopectin (a carbohydrate), harder for us to digest, leading to an increased number of gluten sensitivity related illnesses and have had a significant impact on raising blood sugar levels thereby increasing our risk of both diabetes and obesity.

Potential Problems of Wheat/Gluten Consumption:

1) Gluten Sensitivity

Many of us have heard about and or experienced symptoms of gluten sensitivity and/or intolerance. Gluten sensitivity encompasses a spectrum of disorders, including Celiac disease at one end of the spectrum and mild wheat or gluten intolerance at the other end. Symptoms of gluten sensitivity may include gastrointestinal complaints: diarrhea, constipation, bloating and abdominal pain; as well as fatigue, joint pain, headaches, dizziness, brain fog, anxiety, depression, mood swings, PMS, unexplained infertility, etc. The effects of gluten sensitivity are far-reaching. If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, I challenge you to eliminate gluten from your diet for a period of 3 or 4 weeks to see if you notice an improvement in your health. Gluten containing grains include wheat, spelt, kamut, durum, semolina, bulgur, barley and rye.

2) Wheat Addiction

A study conducted by the National Health Institute discovered that wheat is broken down into a mix of polypeptides, which have the ability to penetrate the blood-brain barrier and bind to morphine receptors. In summary, what happens is: you eat bread which yields morphine-like compounds that bind to the brain’s opiate receptors, inducing a form of reward, ie. a mild euphoria. This euphoria is what perpetuates repetitive consumption. In this sense, wheat is an appetite stimulant insofar as it makes you want more. While I am not advocating that anyone and everyone who eats wheat is addicted to it, I do think it is important to understand that it can contribute to a cycle of craving and over consumption.

3) Glycemic Index of Wheat

In a study conducted by the University of Toronto, which compared the blood sugar effects of different foods, the research showed that the glycemic index of white bread was lower than that of whole grain bread. And that 2 slices of whole grain bread can increase blood sugar more than 2 tbsp of pure sugar. With the prevalence of diabetes and obesity in North America this is a very important fact that we need to take into consideration. So you eat a sandwich for lunch, which elevates your blood sugar levels considerably. This triggers high insulin secretion to regulate blood sugar levels, but the high insulin then means that we are storing this sugar as fat (particularly abdominal fat) and because we had to secrete so much insulin due to the high glycemic index of our meal, our blood sugar levels are now lower than they should be and we feel hungry again. This hunger increases our cravings for quick energy (ie. high glycemic index foods) and hence the cycle continues. In the words of Dr William Davis, “Lose the wheat, lose the weight and find your path back to health.”

Concluding Thoughts

My goal in writing this article is not to fear monger, nor is it to say that wheat is the source of all our problems or that a wheat free diet is the answer for everyone. But I do think that there are a number of health problems that are preventable and as you know I am a huge advocate for healthy diet. No pill or supplement can cure disease the way that a healthy and well-balanced diet and lifestyle can. Be an advocate for your health.  Look at your own diet and question whether any of your health concerns could be related to wheat or any other aspect of your diet.

Whether we focus on gluten sensitivity, the addictive nature of wheat or its high glycemic index – it appears that wheat is no longer the healthy whole grain we once gave it credit for.  But don’t take my word for it – the proof is in the bread pudding.