The Story with Wheat

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In March, there was a television series with the historian Neil Oliver called Ancient Britain. In one episode, about when wheat came to Britain, he mentioned that the new farmers’ vertebra were less healthy than the hunters’, and that the standing stones at Carnac had been hauled into place by the Mesolithic hunters as a show of strength in the face of the new farmers. These ideas chimed in with observations I’ve been making for the last few years about the effects of wheat on the human, which I’d like to share here on my blog. It goes into some detail, as I’m aware of a degree of vagueness on both sides of the ‘to wheat or not to wheat’ question. If you have any questions about what follows, please contact me.

The amazing shrinking man.

Wheat was first developed in the Near East from wild grasses between 8,000 – 12,000 years ago. It reached the UK and Scandinavia between 4,000 – 3,000 BC. So we are talking about the transitional period at the end of the Mesolithic period (middle stone age – the last of the hunter gatherers) and the start of the Neolithic period (the first of the farmers). With the development of wheat and the following domestication of animals, man could settle in one place and agrarian society was born. However, a number of archaeological surveys as referenced in books like The Paleo Diet, Loren Cordain; Living the Low Carb Life, Jonny Bowden or the Sally Fallon book listed below, show that when man started farming, his skeleton shrank and modern diseases such as arthritis appeared (1). It seems he shrank by 4 – 6″, the height of his skull shrank by 15% and there was a 3 – 4 fold increase in dental problems. The disease effects upon Mesolithic man were minor, death being caused by trauma.

Of course, evidence of a high carbohydrate/grain dominant diet leading to smaller stature still exists in Africa today. The wonderful book by Robert Sapolsky called ‘A Primate’s Memoirs’ is about his years in Kenya studying a group of baboons. He is in constant contact with the various African tribes, and the Masaii are notorious pillagers of the other tribes – a fact also noted by Weston A Price in his book ‘Nutrition and Physical Degeneration’. The Masaii are taller, stronger and leaner than the others and their diet consists primarily of bulls blood and milk. Other tribes, eg the Kikuyu, who are agriculturists living primarily on a diet of corn, millet, sweet potatoes, beans and bananas and kaffir corn are smaller and less rugged. The point being that corn, millet and kaffir corn are all developed wild grasses.

What causes these differences in ancient man? Although there were other challenges to the physical health of Neolithic man, such as increasing population density leading to the first appearance of malaria and hookworm, this decline in health has been largely attributed to the change of diet from meat, fish and vegetables to a high carbohydrate diet – with wheat as the main staple. The issues with wheat as a primary food source – where it remains today in western cultures – are quite numerous, and are as follows.

How many stomachs does it take to digest an ounce of wheat?

The Fallon book and the Cordain dissertation referenced below talk about the problem of eating something developed from wild grasses. Animals that have evolved to eat grasses have more than one stomach and a much longer digestive tract than us to deal with the difficulties of digesting grasses. Fallon points out that we have a relatively short digestive tract and fast transit time, so these foods present us with real digestive challenges, especially when eaten with great regularity. She also says that at that time, wheat, rye and barley was eaten by humans only after having been soaked and fermented, in order to make it more digestible. Not only is this no longer the case, but our digestive systems are also far poorer than those of Neolithic man. Some reasons briefly: very sweet diet; chlorinated tap water; eating unnatural/processed foods; depleted soil; lack of fibre; lack of variety of food; toxicity within the environment and taking anti-biotics without subsequent restoration of good gut bacteria.

The Story With Wheat

Keeping things moving

Another problem referred to in all the named texts and elsewhere is the phytates (2). Phytates are found in wheat bran (both then and now) and we lack the digestive enzyme, phytase, to absorb them. They block absorption of iron, calcium, magnesium, copper and zinc in the intestinal tract (3). Calcium is critical for strong bones, so eating a wholewheat cheese sandwich means any calcium in the cheese just goes right on through into the faeces. Magnesium is a critical mineral, used in insulin regulation and production of the sex hormones; the most obvious side effect of deficiency is poor sleep quality. Zinc is critical in the immune system, a powerful antioxidant, as part of gut function and male hormones. Copper helps transport oxygen throughout the body. All 5 minerals have many other critical functions and are already at low levels due to the issues mentioned above. When eaten alongside wheat, their absorption is blocked and they simply pass through the body, putting the body at long-term risk of all sorts of major disorders, from arthritis and cancer to osteoporosis. Phytates are found in high concentration in the bran of all whole grains – eg brown rice as well as wheat. They are also found in nuts and seeds. As the Sally Fallon book points out, when these things are soaked, the phytates are neutralised. So you need to soak then slow roast your nuts before eating them.

The third problem is the pyridoxine glycosides, which block absorption of Vitamin B6. B6’s proper name is Pyridoxal 5-Phosphate. Pyridoxine glycosides are in the wheat bran. Vitamin B6 is found in red and white meat, bananas, peanuts, pistachios and beans and lentils (these contain the most bio-available forms of B6). B6 is crucial in protein metabolism, red blood cell metabolism and the nervous and immune system; in maintaining the health of the lymphoid organs and converting fat to energy. But a large proportion of that found in plant form is glycosylated, making it not only virtually unabsorbable, but any that is absorbed antagonises any useful B6 ingested from meats in the diet(4) . In short it means you can’t get as much oxygen into your blood, you make less anti-bodies, so have a lowered immune response, you can’t access your energy stores properly in times of need and you can’t synthesise some vital neurotransmitters. You also at greater risk of developing heart disease and/or pancreatic cancer.

However it is also true to say that not every source recognises the problems with many plant sources of B6. This said, quoting from the British Department of Health book ‘Dietary Reference Values for Food Energy and Nutrients for the United Kingdom’: ‘The vitamin is widely distributed in foods, although much of the vitamin B6 in some vegetables may be present as unavailable glycosides.’

Why are gluten-free breads/pastries never as nice?

It is clear that the above problems are in more than just wheat. The following problems are now quite specific to wheat/rye and barley. These three contain a particular form of gluten. Gluten (Latin word for glue) gives wheat/rye/barley products plasticity and elasticity so pastry can be rolled out and bread holds its shape and has a chewy texture. The process of kneading bread dough releases the gluten – and, of course, this is why pastry requires a light hand to avoid releasing too much gluten. It also helps bread or cakes to rise. These qualities are very hard to reproduce, hence why bread in particular is not as nice when gluten free. It is also why wheat has been developed to contain more gluten than the forms grown by the Neolithic farmers. In fact, all grains contain gluten in various forms, but only the gluten found in wheat, rye and barley has the potential for the following side effects on the body.

The other reasons why gluten-free isn’t as nice.

Gluten is found in the wheat protein, which is a compound of glutenin and gliadin. Gliadin is the toxic component of gluten. In the digestive process, proteins are broken down to peptides and then to amino acids. Gliadin is broken down to a peptide called either gluteomorphin or gliadorphin. Due to various common toxicities or abnormal gut flora, some people lack the enzyme to further break this peptide down to its amino acid [see appendix], and so the gluteomorphin now enters the body and docks into the opiode receptor sites in the brain, giving a morphine like response = feelings of happy drowsiness – not a productive state to be in. It is posited that this problem can be a causal factor in autism (along with the dairy counterpart, caseomorphin) (5). For those who lack the necessary enzyme, wheat/rye/barley are severely addictive substances and will be leading to very low energy levels post meal, even lower than they would be following a meal high in other starchy carbohydrates (6).

The second reason gluten is addictive is slightly more complex, but affects everybody. It has been found that the breakdown of gliadin also induces a molecule called Zonulin (7). Zonulin causes the tight junctions in the gut wall to open up, allowing macromolecules like the aforementioned gliamorphin to enter the blood stream. Ideally food is fully broken down in the process of digestion and enters the blood stream through the villous lining of the small intestine. In the presence of Zonulin, the partially digested food enters the blood stream prematurely triggering an immune response. However, where gliamorphine is involved, the immune response is targeted at the body itself – the gut wall, the thyroid gland, the pancreas, etc. This is a major causative factor in autoimmune disorders such as Coeliac Disease, Diabetes, Chrons, MS, thyroid disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, cancer and so on. Zonulin has also been found to affect the permeability of the blood/brain barrier in brain cancer patients.

The reason this is an addictive process is that the gut irritation caused by eating wheat also causes the body to damp the inflammation down. To do this, it produces opiode peptides which, as the name suggests, bind to the opiate receptors in the brain in the same way as gluteomorphin. These are also highly addictive, causing a high or brain-fog, making it very difficult to cut down on wheat intake. The gut irritation also causes people to lose their deep abdominal core – not only does this cause a weak, flabby stomach, it also sets one up for long-term back problems, as the abdominal muscles are no longer able to support the back properly.

Finally, white flours – the sort used in white bread, cakes, pizza, pastries, pasta, cous cous etc – have been processed to remove the fibre, so get absorbed much more quickly into the bloodstream. This leads to a rapid surge in insulin and in serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter, which combine to cause an addictive feeling of drowsy elation. The cycle is continued as this surge departs after a few hours, leaving the subject very hungry and reaching for a sweet, often wheaty, pick-me-up – sarnies, biscuits, bowls of soggies et al. This not only affects energy levels over the course of a day, but can lead to long-term weight gain or diabetes, due to soaring levels of insulin, the body’s fat storage hormone.

To all people, gluten derived from wheat/rye/barley is addictive – to some, they are as addictive as opiates. Combined with the modern life-style, where physical activity is often limited, the mental lethargy associated with high gluten intake can leave some open to all sorts of other habits or addictions, such as prolonged spells of passive internet use or telly, and a high reliance of coffee and cigarettes, which provide the uppers necessary to combat the downers. I also believe, from my own experience and those of my clients, that the brain-fog and depression associated with this diet can leave one without the energy or desire to confront an unsatisfying job, relationship or living situation.

Bring back the arrow

Of course, as Neil Oliver said, Neolithic man found the productivity [of farming] irresistible as a survival strategy. He was visibly smaller and frailer than his Mesolithic counterparts – but living in one place with much easier food sources is just so much more convenient than hurling spears at deer or scrabbling about for a few nuts in February. And so today it is just so much easier to eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast, a sandwich at lunch and some pasta for dinner with a jar of sauce spooned over. It is also lucrative for big businesses, who are able to make large mark-ups on packets of breakfast cereals and croissants.

However, the price we pay for regular wheat/rye/barley consumption is high. For some it leads to auto-immune disorders as mentioned above. For others, back-ache or pelvic floor weakness due to the deep abdominal inhibition caused by irritation in the gut. Weight gain, and, more importantly, difficulty losing that weight. For many, fatigue and lassitude, although it is often hard to detect, as it is there all the time and therefore seen as normal. Failure to concentrate or thrive, in children and adults. Mood swings or anxiety, related to unstable blood sugar and neurotransmitter problems. Constipation and/or diarrhoea. Headaches and migraines. Memory problems. Frequent colds or infections. Arthritis. Bloating. Most people will piddle an awful lot in the first few days of giving up wheat and seem to lose a lot of weight, this actually being largely water. Jamie Oliver’s face and torso are a typical example of bloating caused by a high wheat diet.

To put it simply, everybody I have ever known to give up wheat always feels much, much better for it. But is it important to have outlined just why giving it up is so hard to do.

The challenge.

How do you know all the above is true? Well the cheapest and easiest way is to give up gluten completely for 6 weeks. Then eat it again and see what happens.

If you want to try, it requires some care, as gluten is added to an unbelievable number of things. It is wise be picky at first, and look on the back of anything processed. Look in the Allergen section on the back of the packet to see there is no gluten in the product. Everything has to be checked – even fruit juice. For if you eat any gluten at all, the 6 weeks starts again at that point.

Gluten is in malt, so check for malt vinegar. It is also in beer. Gluten free lagers are available, or one can avoid beer altogether and stick to wines and spirits. Most chocolate is fine (but obviously not Kit-Kats). It is used as a filler or a bulker, hence why it is in some fruit juices. It is also in the more obvious bread, cakes, pastries, biscuits, couscous, pastas, soya sauce (gluten free available), most breakfast cereals as well as mixed grain mueslis, spelt and kamut.

Once in the swing, it’s second nature, and not difficult. At a Turkish restaurant, for instance, it means avoiding the bread, beer and couscous and going for falafel, hummus, meat, salad and wine. At home it means spuds, sweet potatoes, pulses, rices, squashes. There are many alternative flours: rice flour, chickpea flour, potato flour, buckwheat flour, arrowroot, cornflour.

There is little point in just reducing intake. No benefit will be felt, so giving up means just that. However, the benefits are as follows.

Quiet nights.

Unless you actually have an illness or trauma, inevitably we get used to how we feel everyday and don’t realise to what low we have sunk. Within a few weeks of giving up wheat, the benefits include a massive reduction of lethargy, depression and anxiety, and a similar increase in concentration and mental stamina. For those who have been having to function on high levels of adrenaline – due to stressful circumstances, work demands or home demands (for example single mothers) – this can manifest as a release of tension, without the sudden slumps. Physically, one becomes slimmer, stronger, develops a better-shaped face and neck, and tighter abs, making the belly flatter. The minerals mentioned above – magnesium, calcium et al. – are allowed into the bloodstream, improving sleep quality, bone strength, the immune system and hormonal stability. Giving up wheat can increase the sex drive and improve performance in bed, as well as giving one more energy to put into the relationship, away from evenings of pizza, DVDs and general slumping. Flatulence will decrease, allowing for a quieter home life. In addition, health will improve because of the variety added to the daily food intake. The more variety one has between each meal, the less damage is done – and the slimmer and sharper you’ll get.

I have quite deliberately not gone into detail about being a Coeliac. If you listen to Dr Tom O’Bryan, he will tell you how hard this diagnosis actually is. The point I have been making is that no one can eat wheat/rye/barley on a regular basis and not suffer some ill-effects. Because of the excessive consumption, everybody has to spend a while detoxing from the stuff and only after a lengthy wheat/rye/barley free period (usually a few years) can it then be clear to the individual as to whether they can occasionally tolerate these difficult foodstuffs. But once gluten clear, there is so much to gain.


Oats. The gluten in oats – avenin – is much more body friendly than gliadin and so oats can be eaten by most people without a problem. However, there is a problem of cross contamination since the oats are transported in a general grain lorry – and milled in the same mill as wheat. There are companies that specialise in gluten free oats – and these are processed from field to shop away from wheat/rye/barley. However, there are still problems relating to over consumption leading to sensitivity – and still problems in the bran of the oat, which contains phytates. It is best to soak the oats in water overnight to overcome this problem.

[1] I recommend google search ‘Cordain: Cereal Grains: Humanity’s Double-Edged Sword’ [Simopoulos AP (ed): Evolutionary Aspects of Nutrition and Health. Diet, Exercise, Genetics and Chronic Disease. Work Rev Nutr Diet. Basel, Karger, 1999 vol 84 pp 19-73] This is a comprehensive dissertation on Grains.

Angel JL ‘Health as a crucial factor in the changes from hunting to developed farming in the eastern Mediterranean.’ In: Cohen MN, Armelagos GJ (eds) Paleopathology at the origins of agriculture. Academic Press. New York.

Eaton SB, Konner M: Palaeolithic nutrition a consideration of its nature and current implications. N Engl J Med 1985;

Nickens PR: Stature reduction of long-term changes in human diet and food economy; in Harris M, Ross EB (eds); Food and Evolution. Toward a Theory of Human Food Habits. Philadelphia, Temply Univ press, 1987 pp 261-283

[2] Dept of Health report ‘Dietary Reference Values for food Energy and Nutrients for the United Kingdom. ‘In vivo studies in humans do not, on balance, show a significant reduction in mineral bioavailability except where phytate (or oxalate) is also high… Any direct adverse effects of high NSP[dietary fibre] are therefore more likely to be seen in those members of the population whose diet is marginal with respect to mineral content, in particular the elderly, and in these cases care should be taken not to rely on phytate-rich sources. Indirect effects – ie the displacement of other nutrients from the diet – may be seen particularly in growing children.’

[3] Reinhold, John G ‘Ecology of Food and Nutrition’ 1972. I:187-192;

Reddy NR, et al ‘Phytates in Cereals and Legumes’ 1989. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.

[4] Waldmann A, Dorr B, et al ‘Dietary intake of B6 and concentration of B6 in blood samples of German vegans’. Inst. of Food Science, University of Hannover, Hannover. Inst. of Nutritional Science, Justus-Liebig-University Giessen, Germany. 20th Oct 2005, Public Health Nutrition 9(6), 779-784.

Sara A Chacko, James, Sul, et al. Magnesium supplementation, metabolic and inflammatory markers, and global genomic and proteomic profiling: a randomised, double-blind, controlled, crossover trial in overweight individuals. American Journal Clinical Nutrition 2011;93;463-73.

[5] Autism: As ever the problem is funding a proper study into the link between autism and gluten/casein malabsorption. Results are mixed. However the following are of interest:

Celiac Disease presenting as autism. Pub Med. Genius SJ, Bouchard TP 2010 Jan.

CP Shattock and Dr P Whitely. The ScanBrit randomised controlled single-blind study. Nutritional Neuroscience Vol 13 Number 2 April 2010

Cutting-Edge Therapies for Autism 2010-2011 Ken Siri and Tony Lyons.

[6] Enzyme for breakdown of gliadin. This is called DPP IV (dipeptidyl peptidase IV). A number of things prevent this enzyme from proper function and these include toxicity from mercury, lead, fluoride, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, cadmium plus abnormal gut flora. Good news: there is a new generation of digestive enzymes available now that includes DPP IV to help gluten digestion. Poliquin does one called Polyzyme Px. However I should add that there is a great deal of interest in the pharmaceutical world in inhibiting this enzyme since it slows down digestion and thus helps stabilise the blood sugar of type 2 diabetics (non-insulin dependant). So a diabetic taking such a drug would have an even worse time digesting gluten. After eating a cheese sandwich, they’d be as high as a kite.

Huebner FR, Lieberman KW, Rubino RP, Wall JS. Demonstration of high opiod-like activity in isolated peptides from wheat gluten hydrosylates. Peptides 1984 5 (6): 1139-47.

D’Alessio DA, Prigeo RL, Ensinck JW. Effects of glucagon-like peptide 1 on the hepatic glucose metabolism. Horm Metab Res 2004: 36:837-841

[7] Zonulin. There are 37 articles in Pub Med on this. Eg Drago S, El Asmar R et al. Gliadin, zonulin and gut permeability effects on celiac and non-celiac intestinal mucosa and intestinal cell lines. Scand J Gastroenterol 2006 April. 41 (4) 408 –19.

Useful Books

Living Gluten-Free for Dummies ( good source of advice and gluten free recipes)

Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon (gives recipes using wheat but using old methods of soaking or fermenting which help neutralise the 4 wheat problems. This all takes time to do and you still need to be wheat free for 16 weeks)

The Diet Cure by Julia Ross (has good advice to help overcome cravings)

One Response to “The Story with Wheat”

  1. Jon Evans 2012-12-25

    Awesome. Beautifully written as always. Thank you so much Claire. Jon (the piano man) x


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