I want to take this issue head on, since popular “wisdom” is that problems with consumption of wheat and related grains begin and end with celiac disease. The Wheat Lobby, for instance, frequently argues that, if you do not have celiac disease, you have no business avoiding wheat and related grains.
Defenders of wheat, such as those cited in this New York Times article, argue that celiac disease affects 1% of the human population, but that the other 99% of people not only can consume wheat with impunity, but can actually do so and obtain health benefits due to fiber and B vitamin content. They say that eliminating wheat and grains is therefore unnecessary, unhealthy, even dangerous.
Let’s therefore examine what health conditions can develop in the 99% of people who do not have celiac disease:
- Cerebellar ataxia–This is a condition in which antibodies to gliadin (though different than those occurring in celiac disease) damage the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for coordination, bladder control, and other bodily functions. People with this condition develop progressive incoordination, begin to stumble, lose control over their bladder, then end up in a wheelchair and experience premature death. Stop eating wheat and related grains and progression of the disease stops, and can partially reverse (only partially, since brain and nervous system tissue are poor at healing).
- Peripheral neuropathy–While most cases of peripheral neuropathy, or damage to the nerves to the legs and organs (e.g., stomach, resulting in a non-functional stomach or gastroparesis) are due to longstanding diabetes, of the remaining cases in people without diabetes, 50% of cases of non-diabetic peripheral neuropathy are caused by an autoimmune reaction triggered by gliadin with high levels anti-gliadin antibody. As with cerebellar ataxia, the incoordination, leg pain, even gastroparesis reverse, sometimes entirely, with wheat/grain elimination.
- Iron deficiency anemia–The phytates of wheat and grains reduce iron absorption by up to 90%, making wheat/grain consumption the second most common cause of iron deficiency anemia in the world after blood loss. Get rid of the wheat/grains, iron deficiency reverses.
- Gynecomastia–This is the “man boob” issue–enlarged breasts in males, embarrassing, disfiguring, and now responsible for male breast reduction surgery being among the most common elective surgeries in men. Recall that the A5 pentapeptide from partial digestion of the gliadin protein is a powerful stimulant of pituitary prolactin release (pro- + lactin = increases lactation); remove wheat and grains, removing all sources of gliadin, and prolactin levels drop and breast size recedes. Even better, lose the wheat and grains, lose the amylopectin A responsible for high blood sugars and insulin, inflammatory belly fat recedes, the activity of the enzyme aromatase in belly fat drops, and testosterone levels increase, estrogen levels drop in males (since overactive aromatase in belly fat converts male testosterone to estrogen).
- Vitamin B12 deficiency–Absorption of vitamin B12, vital for numerous body processes, such as production of blood cells and nervous system function, is impaired because wheat and grains trigger an autoimmune response against the parietal cells of the stomach that produce a protein (“intrinsic factor”) required for B12 absorption. Damage to parietal cells impairs intrinsic factor production, and B12 is not absorbed. This reverses with wheat/grain elimination and is accompanied by a rise in B12 levels and reversal of pernicious or macrocytic anemia.
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis–Up to 50% of people with this autoimmune thyroid condition have high antibody levels against the gliadin protein of wheat and related grains. Remove wheat/grains and autoimmune thyroid inflammation subsides (particularly when combined with vitamin D and cultivation of healthy bowel flora) but, unfortunately, is usually not accompanied by full restoration of thyroid hormone production, meaning thyroid hormones, T4 and T3, may still need to be taken to obtain normal thyroid status.
- Type 1 diabetes–The evidence is quite clear: many, if not most, cases of autoimmune destruction of pancreatic beta cells that produce insulin are initiated by the gliadin protein of wheat and related grains (as well as the zein protein of corn and the casein beta A1 protein of dairy, though less commonly), borne out by both the human as well as the experience in two experimental models. As with Hashimoto’s destruction of the thyroid, pancreatic beta cells are very poor at recovering and the great majority of type 1 diabetics are insulin-dependent diabetics for life.
- Rheumatoid arthritis–Rheumatoid arthritis serves as the prototypical autoimmune disease, in this case an autoimmune attack against the joints of the body. The autoimmune process is initiated by intact forms of gliadin protein, the pathway elegantly worked out by Dr. Alessio Fasano and colleagues while at the University of Maryland.
- Hyperglycemia/type 2 diabetes–The formula to make a person diabetic is simple: eat foods that raise blood sugar and insulin, resistance to insulin develops, visceral fat grows that adds to inflammation that further blocks insulin, fatty liver develops (due to liver de novo lipogenesis) that also further blocks insulin, and blood sugars rise to the diabetic range. The process is therefore started by foods that raise blood sugar the highest. What foods have the highest glycemic index (and glycemic loads) of all foods? Grains–even more so than white table sugar. Follow a diet dominated or rich in grains, white or whole, and blood sugars go up many times per day (since there is virtually no difference from a blood sugar perspective): a perfect setup for type 2 diabetes. Get rid of all wheat and grains and the entire cycle unwinds.
- Eczema, psoriasis, seborrhea, rosacea–These common autoimmune skin conditions that affect millions of people occur in people without celiac disease, and recede or disappear in the majority with wheat/grain elimination.
- Paranoia of schizophrenia, mania of bipolar illness, depression–A substantial subset of people with each of these conditions experience a reduction in symptoms with wheat/grain elimination. Schizophrenics will not be cured, but have reduced paranoia, reduced auditory hallucinations (hearing voices), and improved capacity for social engagement. The people most likely to respond to wheat/grain elimination tend to be the people with high antibodies to gliadin, but there are many who do not have such antibodies who also improve, likely due to the mind- and behavior-altering effects of removing gliadin-derived opioid peptides.
I could go on, as there are literally hundreds of other conditions caused by consumption of wheat and grains in people without celiac disease, all documented in the scientific literature (many references listed in the Wheat Belly Total Health book)—it is not a short list. You can begin to appreciate how patently absurd this “gluten-free is only for people with celiac disease” argument truly is. Wheat and related grains (especially rye, barley, and corn) have far-ranging effects on the brain, thyroid, skin, airways and sinuses, joints, pancreas, breasts, stomach, etc. not just the small intestine. Understand this basic principle, recognize that the Wheat Lobby is defending a flawed collection of food products with misleading smokescreens—reminiscent of the tactics used by Big Tobacco a few years back to defend cigarettes—and you have found the key to an astoundingly powerful return to health: eat no wheat or grains.