In an effort to expose how little most people claiming to adhere to a gluten-free diet actually know about gluten, late night talk show host, Jimmy Kimmel, posted this interview of everyday people claiming to be gluten-free. Clearly, among those not familiar with Wheat Belly, there is an astounding lack of understanding. This is unfortunate, because it allows people like Jimmy Kimmel–yeah, all meant in fun–to discredit what is proving to be one of the most powerful movements in nutrition in health to come along in thousands of years.
So let me pitch in and help out these poor ignorant pedestrians and answer the question:
What is gluten?
Gluten is a complex two-part protein found in wheat with virtually identical structures and amino acid sequences of the protein also found in rye and barley. Each gluten molecule comes in two parts: a larger, polymeric glutenin molecule that confers the stretchiness, or viscoelasticity, of wheat dough, and gliadin, a smaller protein. Both glutenin and gliadin share overlapping sequences also, but it’s the gliadin that is the source of most of the health issues associated with wheat, and thereby rye and barley. Note that the gliadin protein of wheat also resembles the zein protein of corn and, to a lesser degree, the avenin protein of oats, which therefore share some of the same effects, including activation of the immune system. (That’s right: While there is no gluten or gliadin in corn and oats, they have related proteins that have similar effects. Corn products in particular are not immunologically safe for people following a gluten-free lifestyle.)
Among the effects of the gliadin component within gluten on humans:
- Intestinal “leak”–Separation of the tight junctions between intestinal cells is the first step in allowing foreign proteins and other fragments access into the bloodstream. This is how autoimmune conditions begin. It allows gliadin itself, gliadin fragments, wheat germ agglutinin and other lectins, bacterial lipopolysaccharide, and other bacterial components to enter the bloodstream. This is why wheat, rye, barley and corn are associated with type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditism, and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Molecular mimicry–In an odd twist of nature, the gliadin protein overlaps in amino acid structure with a number of human proteins, such as transglutaminase, synapsin, and endomysium: molecular mimicry. Should gliadin activate an immune response, the immune response of T and B lymphocytes, antibodies, and other inflammatory mediators will now be misdirected towards an organ of the body–autoimmunity.
- Mind effects–While intact gliadin molecules activate intestinal leak and molecular mimicry, gliadin can also be partially digested to peptide fragments, many of them 4- or 5-amino acids long. The unique amino acid sequences of these peptides allow them to act as opiates on the human brain. As opiates (more properly “opioids”), they activate hunger, increase calorie intake, create mental “fog,” and trigger a number of other effects that vary with individual susceptibility: anxiety, anger, food obsessions, repetitive behavior, paranoia, mania, deterioration of attention span, and impulsive behavior.
- Intestinal disruption–The unique amino acid structure of gliadin-derived peptides also make them direct bowel toxins that compound the toxicity of another wheat/rye/barley/rice protein called wheat germ agglutinin. Interleukin-mediated inflammation is best documented here.
- Allergies–While the various forms of gliadin have always posed potential allergic risks to humans, recent changes in the amino acid structure of gliadin introduced by agribusiness and geneticists have increased allergic potential, especially in the omega-gliadin (one of three classes of gliadin proteins).
- Increased celiac disease potential–There is a 33-amino acid long sequence within gliadin that is most powerfully associated with triggering celiac disease. One gene, in particular, coding for this amino acid sequence, Glia-alpha9, was uncommon in the wheat of 1950, but is common in modern semidwarf strains of wheat, explaining why there has been a 400% increase in celiac disease over the last 50 years.
Glutenin is a less common cause of problems, but changes in amino acid sequence introduced by geneticists are increasingly being found to exert their own range of health problems, especially allergy. Also, recall that gluten is just one protein among thousands in wheat and other grains. Just because a protein is not gluten does not mean it does not pose its own health implications. Wheat germ agglutinin, for instance (mentioned above), is a direct bowel toxin and underlies gallbladder dysfunction, blocks pancreatic enzyme release, and contributes to changes in bowel flora and dysbiosis. Amylopectin A, not a protein but the carbohydrate of grains, is responsible for sky-high blood sugars, explaining why two slices of whole wheat bread raise blood sugar higher than 6 teaspoons of table sugar. There is more to wheat and grains than gluten.
Whether or not you understand what it is, gluten and the other components of wheat and related grasses exert a wide range of unhealthy effects on the humans who consume them. The seeds of grasses, AKA “grains,” are the food of the desperate when no real food is available. They are not the food to consume for nutrition and to maintain health.