At 700 million tonnes produced annually, wheat is the second most cultivated plant on our planet, after corn. It evolved 20 million years ago from common grass. Our species domesticated and has been growing and eating wheat for nearly 10 000 years, with no complications. However, in the last hundred years, something very significant has happened to this staple food of ours. It all started when Buddhist monks discovered gluten around 1300 years ago. Being mostly vegetarian, they were trying to find a suitable substitute for meat. After placing dough into water, they discovered that the starch washed off, and all that was left was this sticky, gum-like substance, one that we now universally refer to as gluten.

Gluten intolerance, as a medical condition has gained more recognition worldwide. Long considered a fringe concept in medicine, the idea that gluten derived from the wheat we are consuming is damaging our bodies, has now transitioned from health fad, to established medical fact.

Furthermore, the wheat we consume nowadays is a different form of wheat to the one we were consuming for 99.99% of the time our species has been living on this Earth. Once, a large, majestic plant – lofty, at well over 4 feet tall, traditional wheat has changed after years of cross breeding and gene manipulation (forcing mutations through irradiation with gamma and x-rays, treating seeds with chemical agents known to mutate DNA) to the point that modern wheat is now not even 2 feet tall, it’s stocky and has an unnaturally large seed head. A different plant species – one created by humans, not nature.

Coeliac and Gluten Intolerance, not the same Thing

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder where antibodies of the immune system recognise gliadin (a part of gluten’s molecular superstructure- see below) as a foreign substance and start attacking it, causing unnecessary inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, damaging the villi of the gut and impeding proper absorption. On top of this, the antibodies specific for gliadin start cross reacting with the tissue lining the bowel, causing more distress and impeded nutrient absorption.

Gluten intolerance differs to Coeliac disease in that gliadin, has the ability to upregulate zonulin, a powerful enzyme that promotes gut permeability as well as tentatively inhibiting the blood brain barrier. This occurs in every human who eats wheat – some are more sensitive than others. Gut permeability results in the leakage of macromolecules and other substances that shouldn’t normally be seeping into the interstitial fluid and surrounding blood – such as pesticides and insecticides (organochlorines, organophosphates and pyrethroids) that are traditionally sprayed on all fruit and vegetables in non-organic, industrial farms.

Once these substances are in the blood, they cause further inflammation and as the blood isn’t static, these toxic molecules accumulate and eventually cross the blood brain barrier and do major damage to the brain. It has been speculated that the majority of all neurological conditions (that have been on the increase worldwide in the last 50 years,) including dementia and Alzheimer’s, are the direct result of this process of gliadin upregulating zonulin, and in turn acting on the permeability of the gut and brain.

Gliadin is addictive

On top of all this, gliadin is an opiate! Meaning it binds directly to opiate receptors in our brain, is highly addictive and stimulates appetite to the point where calculations have suggested that it makes some people ingest nearly 500 calories more than what they need to ingest. So it also factors into the obesity crisis plaguing the western world.

Over and above the obvious distress that gluten and gliadin have on the system, there are other health risks posed by grain products. Believe it or not, multigrain bread has a higher glycemic index than a tablespoon of refined sugar. And researchers have suggested coming up with a Type 3 Diabetes related to grain consumption due to its effects on the visceral fat located deep in the abdomen and surrounding internal organs – too much of this type of fat tissue is associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Gluten literally means “glue” in Latin and this is an apt descriptor, as it is a very sticky and elastic substance – it is the substance that is left over after starch is drained from wheat flour dough. We never used to isolate gluten from dough and reintroduce it back into the final bread product. This industrial method of making bread was introduced in the last 100 years. So not only has the gluten content of wheat been steadily rising due to our blind tinkering with the wheat genome, but we are also adding more gluten to bread and other food products, during the manufacturing process.

A review paper in The New England Journal of Medicine linked gluten consumption to an elevated risk of developing 55 different diseases (including osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, anaemia, chronic fatigue and a barrage of neurological conditions including depression, anxiety and epilepsy.)

It is very difficult to substitute wheat products or find viable alternatives as many of our most popular foods are derived from wheat (bread, pasta, cereals, muffins, couscous, cookies, cake and on and on) – though oats and buckwheat don’t really have any gluten in them, they still test positive for gluten once they hit the supermarket shelves – the common belief here is that when oats or buckwheat are extracted and processed by farmers using the same machinery that process wheat, they get contaminated with gluten.

Changing diets, not impossible

Changing any habit is difficult, our dietary behaviour has been carefully honed over years and years and as such it is really hard to change. But it is nonetheless achievable. If you are interested in cutting down on wheat but don’t want to go cold turkey, there are natural health products that aim to minimise gluten damage, by aiding its digestion. These may help you on your quest to eliminate wheat products from your diet, gradually.

And remember even if you think you’re not gluten intolerant and have no problems eating bread and other gluten products, it still makes sense to at least monitor the amounts you are eating. See it as an experiment – you think you already feel pretty good, but maybe you can feel even better?

Science suggests your gastrointestinal tract and brain will thank you. Even though science was responsible for creating this Frankenwheat, it is pretty good at admitting when it has made a mistake.

Now it is up to consumers to make informed choices, to be aware of the latest findings and pick up the pieces. To literally separate the wheat from the chaff.

It makes sense. For our brains’ sake (both of them – the one in our head and the one in our gut.)

A nutritional expert's diet

Seeing this can all be a little daunting, I wanted to leave you with a statement from Dr David Perlmutter about his changed diet. A pioneering neurologist, dietary researcher and acclaimed author of the New York Times bestselling book “Brain Grain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers,” David is the only medical doctor in the USA who is both a board-certified neurologist and a Fellow of The American Board of Nutrition – here’s what he said in a recent interview about his diet:

Dr. Perlmutter: “I generally start my day with a three egg omelette made with kale or spinach and covered with olive oil. I drink a cup of coffee with breakfast along with water. At lunch I might have steamed vegetables, salmon, a green salad and an iced tea. And at dinner I again load up with above ground vegetables by themselves or along with wild fish or grass fed beef. I drink one or two glasses of wine each week, but statistically I should drink more. That’s a work in progress.”

So it’s not all bad. Who doesn’t love the last two sentences?

Be well.

Transition Tip

One way to change our behaviour is to try new things. Get funky and creative with bread. You can source gluten-free flour and start making crafty breads in your home. My favourite is gluten-free rosemary and walnut bread (recipe is online) – tastes divine and really helped me adjust my diet (difficult as I am a reformed pasta and bread addict.) Some psychologists suggest that we have to adjust 10 things in our daily routines in order to get meaningful change. Do things differently! Gluten-free banana bread anyone? Yum.


by Christopher von Roy BSc, MSc, DCP Immunology


References (‘Malignancy and mortality in a population-based cohort of patients with coeliac disease or “gluten sensitivity”) (‘Between Celiac Disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome: The “No Man’s Land” of Gluten Sensitivity’) (‘Spectrum of gluten-related disorders: consensus on new nomenclature and classification’) (‘Gliadin induces an increase in intestinal permeability and zonulin release by binding to the chemokine receptor CXCR3’) (‘Zonulin and its regulation of intestinal barrier function: the biological door to inflammation, autoimmunity, and cancer’) (‘Gliadin, zonulin and gut permeability: Effects on celiac and non-celiac intestinal mucosa and intestinal cell lines’) (‘Can an increase in Coeliac Disease be attributed to an increase in the gluten content of wheat as a consequence of wheat breeding?’)

Grain Brain by David Perlmutter, MD

We’d Love Your Feedback

Have you recently adjusted your diet to omit wheat? Are there any tips or recipes you can share to help those seeking change?