Can Wheat Drive More Than Your Digestive System Crazy?

While wheat is well known to wreak havoc on the gastrointestinal health of genetically susceptible folks, such as those with celiac disease, and more recently, irritable bowel syndrome, new research published in the journal Psychiatry Research indicates that sensitivity to one of the components in wheat known as gliadin could be driving some into states of acute mania:

“The relationship of the antibodies to the clinical course of mania was analyzed by the use of regression models. Individuals with mania had significantly increased levels of IgG antibodies to gliadin, but not other markers of celiac disease, at baseline compared with controls in multivariate analyses.”

“Among the individuals with mania, elevated levels at follow-up were significantly associated with re-hospitalization in the six month follow-up period.”1

While correlation does not equal causation, it is interesting to note that there is already robust supportive research on the link between wheat consumption and schizophrenia. Seven such studies can be viewed on our open source wheat database, for those inclined to explore this connection further. You will also find listed there over a dozen neurological conditions linked to wheat consumption.

For an additional explanation for why wheat may exhibit neurotoxic, if not also psychotropic properties, the excerpts from our essay series The Dark Side of Wheat are provided to shed light on the topic:

Gliadin can be broken down into various amino acid lengths or peptides. Gliadorphin is a 7 amino acid long peptide: Tyr-Pro-Gln-Pro-Gln-Pro-Phe which forms when the gastrointestinal system is compromised. When digestive enzymes are insufficient to break gliadorphin down into 2-3 amino acid lengths and a compromised intestinal wall allows for the leakage of the entire 7 amino acid long fragment into the blood, glaidorphin can pass through to the brain through circumventricular organs and activate opioid receptors resulting in disrupted brain function.

There have been a number of gluten exorphins identified: gluten exorphin A4, A5, B4, B5 and C, and many of them have been hypothesized to play a role in autism, schizophrenia, ADHD and related neurological conditions.   In the same way that the celiac iceberg illustrated the illusion that intolerance to wheat is rare, it is possible, even probable, that wheat exerts pharmacological influences on everyone. What distinguishes the schizophrenic or autistic individual from the functional wheat consumer is the degree to which they are affected.

Below the tip of the “Gluten Iceberg,” we might find these opiate-like peptides to be responsible for bread’s general popularity as a “comfort food”, and our use of phrases like “I love bread,” or “this bread is to die for” to be indicative of wheat’s narcotic properties. I believe a strong argument can be made that the agricultural revolution that occurred approximately 10-12,000 years ago as we shifted from the Paleolithic into the Neolithic era was precipitated as much by environmental necessities and human ingenuity, as it was by the addictive qualities of psychoactive peptides in the grains themselves.

The world-historical reorganization of society, culture and consciousness accomplished through the symbiotic relationship with cereal grasses, may have had as much to do with our ability to master agriculture, as to be mastered by it.   The presence of pharmacologically active peptides would have further sweetened the deal, making it hard to distance ourselves from what became a global fascination with wheat.

An interesting example of wheat’s addictive potential pertains to the Roman army. The Roman Empire was once known as the “Wheat Empire,” with soldiers being paid in wheat rations. Rome’s entire war machine, and its vast expansion, was predicated on the availability of wheat. Forts were actually granaries, holding up to a year’s worth of grain in order to endure sieges from their enemies. Historians describe soldiers’ punishment included being deprived of wheat rations and being given barley instead.   The Roman Empire went on to facilitate the global dissemination of wheat cultivation which fostered a form of imperialism with biological as well as cultural roots.

The Roman appreciation for wheat, like our own, may have had less to do with its nutritional value as “health food” than its ability to generate a unique narcotic reaction. It may fulfill our hunger while generating a repetitive, ceaseless cycle of craving more of the same, and by doing so, enabling the surreptitious control of human behavior. Other researchers have come to similar conclusions. According to the biologists Greg Wadley & Angus Martin:

“Cereals have important qualities that differentiate them from most other drugs. They are a food source as well as a drug, and can be stored and transported easily. They are ingested in frequent small doses (not occasional large ones), and do not impede work performance in most people. A desire for the drug, even cravings or withdrawal, can be confused with hunger. These features make cereals the ideal facilitator of civilization (and may also have contributed to the long delay in recognizing their pharmacological properties).”

WHEAT PEPTIDES EXHIBIT MOLECULAR MIMICRY

Gliadorphin and gluten exporphins exhibit a form of molecular mimicry that affects the nervous system, but other wheat proteins effect different organ systems. The digestion of gliadin produces a peptide that is 33 amino acids long and is known as 33-mer which has a remarkable homology to the internal sequence of pertactin, the immunodominant sequence in the Bordetella pertussis bacteria (whooping cough). Pertactin is considered a highly immunogenic virulence factor, and is used in vaccines to amplify the adaptive immune response. It is possible the immune system may confuse this 33-mer with a pathogen resulting in either or both a cell-mediated and adaptive immune response against Self.

WHEAT CONTAINS HIGH LEVELS OF EXCITO-TOXINS

John B. Symes, D.V.M. is responsible for drawing attention to the potential excitotoxicity of wheat, dairy, and soy, due to their exceptionally high levels of the non-essential amino acids glutamic and aspartic acid. Excitotoxicity is a pathological process where glutamic and aspartic acid cause an over-activation of the nerve cell receptors (e.g. NMDA and AMPA receptor) leading to calcium induced nerve and brain injury.   Of all cereal grasses commonly consumed wheat contains the highest levels of glutamic acid and aspartic acid. Glutamic acid is largely responsible for wheat’s exceptional taste. The Japanese coined the word umami to describe the extraordinary “yummy” effect that glutamic acid exerts on the tongue and palate, and invented monosodium glutamate (MSG) to amplify this sensation. Though the Japanese first synthesized MSG from kelp, wheat can also be used due to its high glutamic acid content.   It is likely that wheat’s popularity, alongside its opiate-like activity, has everything to do with the natural flavor-enhancers already contained within it. These amino acids may contribute to neurodegenerative conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Alzhemier disease, Huntington’s disease, and other nervous disorders such as epilepsy, attention deficit disorder and migraines.

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