In the last 100 years, we have seen dramatic increases in chronic inflammatory conditions, as well as degenerative diseases, and there seems to be no end in sight. Contemporary life – with its constant barrage of pollution and high stress – certainly plays a role, but research points to something else. Studies show that many modern-day illnesses and disorders such as; Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyper-Activity Disorder (ADHD), Autism, Anxiety, Anemia, Cancer, Crohn’s, Depression, Dermatitis & Skin Disorders, Allergies, Epilepsy, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, Migraines, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Schizophrenia can often be traced to the high protein wheat we eat today. In addition, these health problems may be exasperated by the fact that our exposure to gluten has reached a level never seen before in our evolutionary history.
In Part 1 of this series, we covered what gluten is, the obvious and not so obvious places it can be found, and the evolutionary and historical context of these grains. Here in part 2, we look at the science behind gluten’s inflammatory effects and why it effects some of us and not others. In Part 3, we’ll cover Gluten Intolerance vs. Gluten Sensitivity and explore the issues with mainstream testing methods and why you might be gluten intolerant or sensitive even though your test results came back negative.
It is important to understand that the wheat we eat today is not the same as the wheat our forefathers ate. Theirs was a simple grain. It contained low levels of gluten and was fairly difficult to mass harvest prior to the agricultural revolution. Gradually over the centuries, this simple wheat was cultivated into a high-protein, high-yield crop, leading to an ever decreasing genetic diversity. Furthermore, most wheat strains we consume in the United States today are genetically altered, leaving us with highly cultivated versions of wheat that are relatively new to our bodies from an evolutionary perspective. Read more about these aspects of wheat in Part 1.
Much of the “toxicity” that we see with gluten today is due to the molecular structure of gluten and the response it prompts in the immune system for individuals possessing certain genes. Our immune system is comprised of white blood cells that have certain patterns of proteins on their surface. These proteins are known as humanleukocyte antigens (HLA), one of which is DQ. Research shows that Celiac disease and many autoimmune conditions occur most frequently with the expression of certain HLA-DQ serotypes. Each of us have two copies of HLA-DQ. There are 9 serotypes of DQ, so each of us is basically DQx/DQx, where x is a number between 1 and 9. We receive one serotype from each of our parents and then each give one of our two serotypes to our children, hence it is easy to see how the DQ genes pass through families. This is why having a family history of Celiac’s or an autoimmune disease increases one’s chance of developing one of these conditions drastically. The two serotypes that are estimated to be present in 98% of all people expressing Celiac’s disease are HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8.
The 2 and 8 serotypes are believed responsible for priming the immune system in recognizing gluten as a foreign protein and prompting an immune response by producing antibodies, allowing for a quicker more devastating attack the next time gluten is digested in the body. Strikingly, the genes responsible for this reaction are not rare. Based on current research, they may be present in up to 60% of Americans. It is understandable why mainstream medicine classifies gluten intolerance primarily as a genetic issue, but more and more research is surfacing on other factors why gluten might be harmful to our bodies, even if we don’t have a genetic predisposition.
In addition to the genetic sensitivity many of us express when exposed to gluten, the molecular structure of gluten itself plays a role in some of the detrimental effects it may have on our health. Most of us know that wheat is broken down into the protein gluten, but many are unaware that gluten is further broken down into many different components such as gliadins, gluteomorphins, glutenin, lectins and wheat germ agglutinin. These ‘sub-proteins’ of gluten are often highly toxic to our systems due to their polypeptide or peptide chain structures.
One of the most prevalent peptides in gluten containing grains are gliadins, specifically alpha gliadin 33-mer. There are other gliadins such as beta, gamma, and omega and one can react to any of them, but standard testing only addresses alpha gliadin 33-mer. Research indicates that the 33-mer sequence is very difficult to be broken down by the human digestive system. But by far the biggest issue is that the amino acid sequence of the 33-mer structure closely resembles amino acids sequences found in human tissues, such as the thyroid gland or the small or large intestine. This is detrimental to our bodies as any antibodies produced against gliadins will also turn on our own tissue by a process called molecular mimicry. The resulting chronic inflammation and constant barrage on the targeted tissues is the cause for many inflammatory and degenerative conditions and is one of the connections between gluten intolerance and most autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, to give but one example.
It is important to understand that in autoimmune conditions the tissue that is being targeted such as the thyroid in Hashimoto’s is not the problem. The issue is a hyper-vigilant immune system that is attacking your own tissue. Sadly, mainstream medicine often only addresses the targeted tissue by giving in this example thyroid medication, even though the thyroid is simply the victim of a much larger problem.
Another link to why the immune system becomes hyper-vigilant is that the digestive system is also targeted as the antibodies start attacking the villi in the small intestine, thus reducing the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Left unchecked, this condition can result in Leaky Gut Syndrome, where the walls of the small intestine become inflamed and the tight junctions become permeable to undigested or partially digested proteins which are then able to leak into the blood stream through the damaged intestinal wall. These foreign invaders in the blood stream prompt the response of the immune system and production of more and varied antibodies against these protein molecules, resulting in food sensitivities, allergies, and over time autoimmune conditions.
Now that we understand how gliadins play into the picture when dealing with gluten intolerance, we need to address the other peptides that are equally or even more detrimental to our health. One of these peptides are gliadomorphins. They are an opiate like substance that is found in gluten containing grains and in dairy products in the form of casiomorphins. These substances are toxic to the brain and are highly addictive as they act as opoids. Not only do they result in neural degeneration and inflammation causing brain fog, anxiety, depression, and dementia, but they are the primary reason why these foods can be so addicting and cause cravings like no other. This is why it can often be very hard or almost impossible for some people to stop eating bread, dairy, and processed foods.
Lectins are another breakdown component of all grains, but they are also found in seeds, nuts, dairy, and the nightshade family such as potatoes and tomatoes. Lectins are glycoproteins and are often referred to as antinutrients as they often have harmful affects on the body. Gluten containing grains contain the lectin Wheat Germ Agglutinin (WGA) which is commonly found in the often praised whole grains, especially when sprouted. I know this is contrary to what we hear as sprouted whole grains are believed to be one the most healthy versions of wheat, but sadly it’s one of the most detrimental to your health if you have gluten intolerance or sensitivity.
What is unique about the WGA glycoprotein is that it can afflict direct damage to the majority of tissues in the human body without requiring a specific set of genetic susceptibilities and/or immune-mediated articulations. Current research shows that it causes some of the most severe symptoms, even more so than reactions to gliadins, but it is not typically tested for by mainstream medicine when diagnosing for gluten intolerance. This means that some people may suffer heavily for decades and never get diagnosed since no once checks for WGA. Each grain contains about 1 microgram of WGA. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control it takes only 500 micrograms to kill a human. A single, one ounce slice of wheat bread contains approximately this amount of WGA, which if refined to it’s pure form and injected directly into the blood stream could kill you by causing clotting, myocardial infarction and stroke.  Of course, this is not a likely route of exposure and in reality we ingest WGA lectins through the gastrointestinal tract where they can cause mucosal injuries. This is due to WGA having an exceptionally small molecular size of 36 kilodaltons. The intestines will allow passage of molecules up to 1,000 kilodaltons which means the WGA can pass through the cell walls of the intestines with ease.
With someone who’s intestinal barrier has been compromised due to a leaky gut or through the regular consumption of Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAID) which also increase intestinal permeability, the consumption of whole wheat bread and WGA can have detrimental effects on overall health. It stands to reason that the inflammation in people who are in the need for NSAID’s due to chronic inflammatory conditions might be caused by the absorption of WGA lectins in the first place.
Finally, there are other anti-nutrients such as phytates which inhibit the enzymes necessary to digest food and bind to vitamins and minerals, making them unavailable to the body. The main minerals targeted by phytates include calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and zinc. Interestingly, many of wheats “health benefits” are attributed to containing these essential minerals, but the phytates can prevent partial or full absorption of the nutrients. Furthermore, phytates attack enzymes necessary to digest food such as trypsin for protein digestion.
It’s important to note that an immune response to gluten (and its smaller peptides) can occur in any tissue and is not limited to the digestive system. The antibodies can attack the brain, pancreas, bones, thyroid, etc, and cause inflammation and ultimately destruction of the tissue. Resulting symptoms include brain fog, migraines, depression, attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, diabetes, osteoporosis, skin conditions, fatigue, nerve pain, epilepsy, GERD, Hypothyroidism, Crohn’s disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and many other chronic inflammatory conditions such as lupus and other autoimmune diseases.
Within the past ten years, scientific research has begun to substantiate the benefits of a gluten-free diet. The Journal of Attention Disorders noted doctors and parents reported a significant improvement in the behavior of children clinically diagnosed with ADHD after 6 months on a gluten-free diet. In addition, research in the journal Neurology indicated that 70% of unrelenting migraines were relieved on a gluten-free diet.
As the detrimental effects of gluten on our systems continues to build up, many of us are taking matters into their own hands. These actions by forward-thinking people are reflected in the gluten-free labels and gluten-free sections popping up all over our grocery stores. While many factors play into our health, including genetics, environmental pollution and emotional stress, our diet is often the one thing we have the most control over. It’s also the one thing that has the most immediate effect on how we feel. As always, I encourage you to do your own research on this topic. If you are suspecting that gluten may be an issue for you and are curious to learn more, contact me for a complimentary consultation.
 M. Hadjivassiliou, R.A. Grünewald, M. Lawden, G.A.B. Davies–Jones, T. Powell, and C.M.L. Smith. Headache and CNS white matter abnormalities associated with gluten sensitivity Neurology. February 13, 2001 56:385-388