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Wheat, Grains, Gluten, and Lectins

Montgomery County Chiropractic
April 29, 2012 at 10:05am ·

In this article a key question is brought to the forefront, namely, is eating wheat and gluten free enough to obtain optimal health? The mass market has done quite a good job of accommodating the gluten & wheat free movement by providing an increasingly wide number of good tasting and seeming nutritious “whole grain” products. But are whole grains like rice, or other common wheat substitute flours like potato, really as good for us as we think?

The question can be answered in a number of ways, and it is important to keep things in perspective. As idealists, we might ask ourselves: “What is the perfect diet?” But as realists there is always a sliding scale of lesser evils that we exchange for the experience of enjoying our foods and obtaining the comfort they readily provide. Take a grain of sea salt as you read this exposé, as it is intended to illuminate how in some cases eliminating wheat and gluten will not be enough to overcome nagging inflammatory problems like osteoarthritis, or maybe more serious treatment refractory and idiopathic health conditions.
Lectins: Invisible Thorns

In a previous article this author discussed the “invisible thorn” found within all wheat products, including sprouted wheat bread and wheat grass, known as wheat lectin (technical name: Wheat Germ Agglutinin (WGA)). This intrinsically inflammatory and endocrine disruptive substance was thoroughly reviewed (via MEDLINE) and identified to have a broad range of potentially health disruptive effects:

1) WGA may be Pro-inflammatory

2) WGA may be Immunotoxic

3) WGA may be Neurotoxic

4) WGA may be Cytotoxic

5) WGA may interfere with Gene Expression

6) WGA may disrupt Endocrine Function

7) WGA may be Cardiotoxic

WGA may adversely effect Gastrointestinal Function

9) WGA exhibits similarities with certain Viruses

[View a more elaborate analysis of WGA's modes of toxicity, including citations]
Lectin Toxicity May Evade Antibody-Based Blood Tests
While it is clear that wheat lectin has potential to do harm, it must be emphasized that the type of harm it does is harder to diagnose than in classically defined wheat/gluten allergies and celiac disease. In other words, confirmation of intolerance will not be found in antibody, allergy or intestinal biopsy testing because the damage it does is direct, and not necessarily immune-mediated, or only secondarily so.

This diagnostic “invisibility” is why lectin consumption is rarely linked to the ailments that afflict those who consume them. While lectins are not the sole or primary cause of a wide range of disorders, they are a major factor in sustaining or reinforcing injuries or diseases once they are initiated and/or established in the body. In the case of wheat lectin (WGA) this is due to the fact that it binds to, interacts and disrupts a basic component found within all neural, connective and epithelial tissue, namely, n-acetyl-glucosamine. Once WGA makes it through a compromised mucosa and/or digestive lining, for instance, it can exert systemic effects which easily become overlooked as being caused by consuming wheat.

Wheat Lectin Thorn
So Why Do Plants Like Wheat Produce Lectins?

Nature engineers, within all species, a set of defenses against predation, though not all are as obvious as the thorns on a rose or the horns on a rhinoceros. Plants do not have the cell-mediated immunity of higher life forms, like ants, nor do they have the antibody driven, secondary immune systems of vertebrates with jaws. They must rely on a much simpler, innate immunity. It is for this reason that seeds of the grass family, e.g. rice, wheat, spelt, rye, have exceptionally high levels of defensive glycoproteins known as lectins. In a previous article we explored this in greater depth:

Wheat lectin is Nature’s ingenious solution for protecting the wheat plant from the entire gamut of its natural enemies. Fungi have cell walls composed of a polymer of N-Acetylglucosamine. The cellular walls of bacteria are made from a layered structure called the peptidoglycan, a biopolymer of N-Acetyl-glucosamine. N-Acetylglucosamine is the basic unit of the biopolymer chitin, which forms the outer coverings of insects and crustaceans (shrimp, crab, etc.). All animals, including worms, fish, birds and humans, use N-Acetyglucosamine as a foundational substance for building the various tissues in their bodies, including the bones. The production of cartilage, tendons, and joints depend on the structural integrity of N-Acetylglucosamine. The mucous known as the glycocalyx, or literally, “sugar coat” is secreted in humans by the epithelial cells which line all the mucous membranes, from nasal cavities to the top to the bottom of the alimentary tube, as well as the protective and slippery lining of our blood vessels. The glycocalyx is composed largely of N-Acetylglucosamine and N-Acetylneuraminic acid (also known as sialic acid), with carbohydrate end of N-Acetylneuraminic acid of this protective glycoprotein forming the terminal sugar that is exposed to the contents of both the gut and the arterial lumen (opening). WGA’s unique binding specificity to these exact two glycoproteins is not accidental. Nature has designed WGA perfectly to attach to, disrupt, and gain entry through these mucosal surfaces. ~ Opening Pandora’s Bread Box

The Omnipresence of Chitin-Binding Lectin in the Western Diet

While eliminating wheat from the diet is an excellent and necessary step for improving health, it may not be alone sufficient, especially in those with serious health challenges. There are other lectins in the Western diet that have properties similar to wheat lectin (WGA), namely, “chitin-binding lectins.” Remember, “chitins” are long polymers of n-acetyl-glucosamine, the primary binding target of wheat lectin. Wheat lectin and “chitin-binding lectin” therefore share functional similarities. These chitin-binding lectin containing foods are:

1) Potato [view abstract]

2) Tomato [view abstract]

3) Barley [view abstrac]

4) Rye [view abstract]

5) Rice [view abstract]

Yes, you are seeing correctly: potato and rice, which are two of the most commonly used ingredients in “gluten and wheat free” products, are on the list of foods which contain a lectin structurally and functionally similar to wheat lectin.

While the “nightshade” (potato and tomato) connection with inflammation has been known about for quite some time anecdotally, rice has rarely been considered problematic and has become something of a poster child for the wheat/gluten free industry which often substitutes it for gluten-containing ingredients.

The discovery that chitin-binding lectin is broadly distributed throughout cereal grasses sheds light on how the grain-free diet produces health results superior to that of eliminating wheat and gluten containing grains alone.
How These Lectins Explain Our Dependence on NSAIDs and Glucosamine

Because many tissues within humans are comprised of n-acetyl-glucosame (a chitin-like substance) the consumption of seemingly innocuous foods such as listed above could result in a wide range of adverse effects (see WGA Research). The fact that so many Americans consume at least two or three of the above foods (plus wheat) daily may explain, for one, why degenerative joint disease (i.e. osteoarthritis) is the rule and not the exception in Western societies. This should explain the connection further:

One way to gauge just how pervasive the adverse effects of these foods are among Western populations is the popularity of the dietary supplement glucosamine. In the USA, a quarter billion dollars’ worth of glucosamine is sold annually.The main source of glucosamine on the market is from the N-Acetylglucosamine rich chitin exoskelotons of crustaceans, like shrimp and crab. Glucosamine is used for reducing pain and inflammation. We do not have a dietary deficiency of the pulverized shells of dead sea critters, just as our use of NSAIDs is not caused by a deficiency of these synthetic chemicals in our diet. When we consume glucosamine supplements, the chitin-binding lectins in our foods, instead of binding to our tissues, bind to the pulverized chitin in the glucosamine supplements, sparing us from their full impact. Many millions of Americans who have greatly reduced their pain and suffering by ingesting glucosamine and NSAIDs may be better served by removing chitin-binding lectin containing foods (the underlying cause of their malaise) from their diets. This would result in even greater relief from pain and inflammation along with far less dependency on palliative supplements and medicines alike. ~ Opening Pandora’s Bread Box

The connection between these chitin-binding lectins and NSAID/Glucosamine dependency has now been explained, but this is only the tip of the “lectin” iceberg. I believe that an in-depth investigation into wheat lectin/chitin-binding lectin will reveal that these “invisible thorns” are a rather dominant contributing factor to morbidity and mortality in Westernized societies, and largely go unnoticed because they do not require immune mediation (and therefore may not be diagnosable through antibody testing) in order to inflict damage.

Obesity and Overweight

You are overweight. I’m sorry to be blunt, but it’s probably true: most adults living in Western countries are overweight. A large portion is obese.

Half of you are taking at least one prescription medication. Half of seniors are taking at least three. You may not be on anything, but you know someone who is.

Does that sound normal? I mean, are perpetual chronic illness and obesity the normal sta…te of existence for us? Is our wiring so inherently faulty that we can’t keep ourselves alive without pills and doctors?

No. Absolutely not. It wasn’t always like this, you know.

The first big turn happened with the Agricultural Revolution. Right around 10,000 years ago, when former hunter-gatherers began growing grain seeds in neat, organized rows, something happened. Population exploded, because we now had a steady source of calories. Villages and cities sprang up, because we no longer had to follow our food. We could simply grow it where we lived.

Those sound like pretty good things, at first. More food and shelter sounds good, right?

Well, something else happened, too. Those early farmers were shorter than the hunter-gatherers they replaced. They didn’t live as long, and they had smaller brains. They got a lot more infectious diseases and more cavities. In short, they were not as healthy as the hunter-gatherers. Same genes, same homo sapiens, different environment, worse health.

But wait – whole grains are supposed to be healthy. Every government institution recommends making whole grains a big part of our diet. How could grain agriculture have caused all those health problems in our ancestors?

The thing about grains is that they don’t care about you. Think about it: a grain of wheat is a baby plant. A wheat egg, if you will. In order for that wheat to pass on its genes, its grain must make it into the ground, sprout, and grow up to repeat the process. Just as a hen keeps its egg warm and well-protected until it hatches, the grain needs ways to stay protected through this process and to keep other animals from eating it.

Unfortunately for the grain, it has no legs, teeth, wings, or claws. It can’t fight. It can’t run from predators. It looks downright defenseless, just sitting there on a puny stalk of wheat.

The grain is anything but defenseless, though. It has an array of chemical defenses, including various lectins, gluten, and phytic acid, that disrupt your digestion, cause inflammation, and prevent you from absorbing vital nutrients and minerals.

All grains contain some or all of these anti-nutrients, to varying degrees, so when our ancestors began making regular meals of them, their health suffered accordingly.

Okay – so we’ve got the fossil records to prove that grain agriculture brought illness and poorer health to human populations, but we don’t know if those early farmers were obese. They probably weren’t. Even if you look at photos of Americans from the 1930s through the 60s, just about everyone is thin. How’s that?

Let’s keep going.

That brings me to the second shift: the late 1970s. Up until then, the obesity rate in America had stayed fairly constant at around 12% of the adult population. Not great, but not too bad for an affluent society with easy access to food.

Starting in the early 80s, things changed. Obesity rates began a steady, constant climb until today, where almost 30% of the adult population is obese and 70% is overweight and/or obese. 1 in 3 American adults is obese. More than 2 in 3 are overweight. Does this seem right?

What the heck changed?

The low-fat diet craze kicked off. People were told that fat and cholesterol were killing them (based on terrible science, which I’ll get into in a future lesson) and making them fat.

So, to avoid all that fat, they started eating more grains, carbs, and other processed low-fat foods.

The other thing about grains (and carbs in general) is that they raise your body’s insulin levels. Insulin is required to shuttle nutrients, like carbs and protein, into various cells of the body. You eat carbs and insulin deals with them. But if you eat too many carbs – like, say, a person who was just told never to eat fat and to eat all the low-fat, high-sugar processed grain products they wanted might do – without exercising at an insane level, your body pumps too much insulin and you get insulin resistant.

When you’re insulin resistant, any amount of carbohydrate will not be tolerated. It will turn to body fat, and the more body fat you have, the more insulin resistant you get. The more insulin resistant you are, the less nutrients are being shuttled into your cells, meaning you stay hungry even though you’re eating, so you eat even more carbs that you can’t tolerate. It’s a vicious cycle, you see, and it’s led to the mess we’re in.

To make things even worse, many of the carbs we’re now eating come in the form of sugar, or its cheaper, more widespread alternative, high-fructose corn syrup. Both forms of sugar are high in fructose, which the liver turns into liver glycogen, a type of carb-based energy, until its glycogen stores are full. Those glycogen stores fill up fast, and since most people aren’t using any glycogen (kinda hard to do that when you have to work an office job and sit in traffic all day), that fructose turns to liver fat.

Five Ways Gluten Makes You Sick and Fat

Gluten can trigger inflammation, obesity and chronic disease in five major ways.

1) Full-blown celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that triggers body-wide inflammation triggering insulin resistance, which causes weight gain and diabetes, as well as over 55 conditions including autoimmune diseases, irritable bowel, reflux, cancer, depression, osteopo…rosis and more.

2) Low-level inflammation reactions to gluten trigger the same problems even if you don’t have full-blown celiac disease but just have elevated antibodies (7% of the population or 21 million Americans).

3) There is also striking new research showing that adverse immune reactions to gluten may result from problems in very different parts of the immune system than those implicated in celiac disease. Most doctors dismiss gluten sensitivity if you don’t have a diagnosis of celiac disease, but this new research proves them wrong. Celiac disease results when the body creates antibodies against the wheat (adaptive immunity), but another kind of gluten sensitivity results from a generalized activated immune system (innate immunity). This means that people can be gluten-sensitive without having celiac disease or gluten antibodies and still have inflammation and many other symptoms.

4) A NON-gluten glycoprotein or lectin (combination of sugar and protein) in wheat called wheat germ agglutinin (WGA)(1) found in highest concentrations in whole wheat increases whole body inflammation as well. This is not an autoimmune reaction but can be just as dangerous and cause heart attacks (2).

5) Eating too much gluten free food (what I call gluten free junk food) like gluten free cookies, cakes and processed food. Processed food has a high glycemic load. Just because it is gluten free, doesn’t mean it is healthy. Gluten free cakes and cookies are still cakes and cookies! Vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds and lean animal protein are all gluten free – stick with those.

The latest numbers indicate that as many as one in every 5 people (yes, that’s right) have some form of gluten-sensitivity.
Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2010 Jun;14(6):567-72

Having trouble figuring out what to eat? Follow these charts.
* If you’re vegetarian or vegan, that’s also okay, but stay away from dairy, grains and processed foods. Supplement with amino acids for protein needs. Platinum Plus Amino Acids and/or Master Amino Acid Pattern (MAP)

See also: Wheat Belly Blog | Lose the Wheat Lose the Weight

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