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The Effects of Wheat Consumption on Human Health

By James T. Prado, DC
Pomperaug Chiropractic & Holistic Center, PC
Southbury, Connecticut

Both plants and animals store their energy in the form of tightly packed glucose (sugar) units.  In animals these glucose units surround a protein called glycogenin forming what is known as glycogen.  Glycogen is stored in the liver and muscles and during lean times or when the need for energy exceeds energy intake, glycogen is released to be used as fuel by the body.  Plants store their energy in a similar way, in the form of starches.  Like glycogen which is sometimes referred to as “animal starch,” plant starches are the stored energy of plants and are often found in or around the seed of a plant where it acts as an energy source for the early development of a new seedling.  Like animal starch, or glycogen, plant starches are also comprised of tightly packed sugar (glucose) units.  Plants have two main forms of stored glucose, they are the starches known as amylose and amylopectin.  These forms of plant-based energy provide the main food source for most animal species. 

The molecular structure of amylopectin is very sensitive to the enzyme amylase, which is found in saliva and in the stomach.  Thus the effects of amylase on ingested amylopectin results in a very rapid breakdown of amylopectin by amylase into its individual sugar molecules.  This is why we say that eating a starch, such as bread, is like eating pure sugar—actually as you read on you will see that eating some forms of amylopectin is far worse than eating sugar!  The interaction of amylopectin with the enzymes in saliva cause ingested starches to transform into pure sugar before leaving the mouth!  This results in the unlocking of tightly packed glucose units allowing for a flood of glucose into the stomach and gastrointestinal tract with an extremely rapid rise in blood sugar and a subsequent spike in insulin production which is even more intense than would occur after ingesting pure table sugar.  In contrast, amylose, amylopectin’s cousin, is less sensitive to the enzyme amylase.  This allows for only partial breakdown of amylose resulting in the passage of undigested amylose into the colon where it becomes an important food for the highly beneficial bacteria living in the colon.  These bacteria digest the amylose giving off significant amounts of gas.  It won’t surprise you then that the predominant form of starch in beans is amylose!  The important thing to note here is that since amylose is only partially broken down into sugar it doesn’t cause the rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin that result from the digestion of amylose’s evil cousin, amylopectin.  We know that rapid spikes in blood sugar and subsequent excessive insulin production—which occurs with high glycemic foods—results in fat storage, especially visceral adipose, the dangerous belly fat that has been linked to many chronic diseases.

Taking a closer look at amylopectin we see that its constituent chains of sugar molecules can take three different forms—simply referred to as amylopectin A, B and C.  It appears that amylopectin A is the most susceptible to the enzyme activity of amylase thus it releases its mother-load of sugar extremely efficiently resulting in a literal explosion of sugar into the blood stream.  It just so happens that amylopectin A is the predominant starch found in modern day hybridized wheat.  According to William Davis, MD, author of the N.Y. Times best selling Wheat Belly, it is this form of starch that is largely responsible for the obesity and diabetes epidemic that is rapidly spreading around the planet.

Is wheat really that unhealthy?  I guess that depends upon the wheat you eat.  It appears that the earliest form of wheat first gathered by our ancestors somewhere around 10,000 years ago had 14 chromosomes and is referred to as Einkorn.  Einkorn mated with other wild grasses and became Emmer which was the predominant wheat of ancient Egyptian and biblical times.  Emmer contained 28 chromosomes.  Further crossings with goat grass led to wheat with 32 and with hybridization modern wheat now contains 42 chromosomes—a far cry from the wheat consumed by our ancestors.  Studies published in 2005 1 and 2006 2 suggest that the glutens found in the ancient wheat Einkorn are less toxic to humans and may be better tolerated by individuals with celiac disease and gluten intolerance.  The problem is that 99% of all wheat grown in the world today is known as “High Yield Semi-Dwarf Wheat” which predominantly contains this high glycemic “super-starch” known as amylopectin A and contains wheat proteins or glutens that are highly inflammatory and toxic to humans, far more than the glutens found in the earlier forms of wheat such as Einkorn.  Scientists believe that this is the reason there has been a rapidly increasing incidence of celiac disease and gluten intolerances. 

This evidence supports the theory that wheat consumption plays a major role in the obesity epidemic and more directly causes significant increases in inflammation.  Remember that the systemic inflammation at the root of most chronic diseases is related to the levels of insulin produced and is also the result of immune system responses unable to shut-off.  When the human immune system is responding to the ingestion of toxic wheat glutens, often numerous times each day, it remains in a heightened state of activity resulting in a chronic state of inflammation.

I am often asked, “What is inflammation?”   Inflammation is a natural protective response by the body in attempt to remove or destroy the injurious agents such as bacteria and viruses and to initiate the healing process of injured or damaged body parts.  So whether or not your body is being damaged by invading bacteria or by a mechanical force, such as the tearing of a ligament from and ankle sprain, inflammation is the necessary process that nature uses to contain the injured area, fight off invading agents and initiate the healing of damaged structures.  This sounds like inflammation is a really good thing—and it is! Without inflammation we would not survive.  Then why do we speak of inflammation as being a bad thing that is responsible for chronic disease?  We are all familiar with the old saying, “too much of a good thing…”  It is important that inflammation shuts off when it is done doing its job.  The failure to shut off leads to irritation and damage to the bodily parts that are chronically inflamed.  For instance if the lining of your intestines is being bathed in a soup of pro-inflammatory glutens found in our modern-day hybridized wheat, then the body’s immune system will be chronically inflaming the intestinal wall in reaction to these toxins.  Chronic inflammation may start out as a localized problem in the intestines causing damage to the intestinal lining but will eventually lead to an elevation of the inflammatory processes throughout the entire body.  This is known as systemic inflammation.  Systemic inflammation has been linked to most chronic diseases such as cancers, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases—such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases—autoimmune diseases and even to depression.

The problems with High Yield Semi-Dwarf Wheat don’t end here.  Another issue which appears to be gaining some support in the scientific literature is that the digestion of wheat proteins, specifically gliadin, results in the production of neuropeptides which satisfy the opiate receptors in the brain presumably resulting in what some suggest is an “addictive” property of wheat3.  In this paper3, five peptides were derived from wheat gluten, and named gluten exorphins A5, A4, B5, B4 and C.  These products of digested wheat proteins act on the delta opiate receptor of the brain producing a mild opiate-like effect.  This does, at least theoretically, outline a mechanism for what is considered by many to be the highly addictive nature of wheat.  Not surprisingly the scientific literature is filled with papers related to the topic of potential food derived substances that may be used as additives to potentially induce a biochemical addiction to products with this additive.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this is going!

As you might imagine the wheat industry is not happy with preventive cardiologist, Dr. William Davis and his book Wheat Belly.  More and more we are hearing about the media reporting on information related to the potential adverse effects of wheat consumption.  Recently the Dr. Oz show hosted Dr. Davis where he spoke about “Frankenwheat.”  Davis explained how the wheat we eat today is NOT the same wheat that we consumed in the 1950’s and 60’s.  According to Dr. Davis this new “Frankenwheat” has been genetically altered to create a high yield, semi-dwarf species.  This is where the wheat industry takes exception with Dr. Davis.  The wheat industry is claiming that there is no such thing as Genetically Modified (GMO) wheat.  In the strictest sense of the term, GMO, they are correct.  As of this writing there is no wheat yet on the market that has been genetically modified using gene splicing and other techniques which are generally considered “Genetic Modification.”  However what Dr. Davis explains is that the more primitive techniques used in the hybridization of wheat resulting in the introduction of high yield semi-dwarf wheat are likely far more dangerous than the more precise gene splicing technologies that have been developed more recently.  The “old way” of genetically altering wheat and other living things was to subject them to highly toxic agents, such as irradiation or toxic chemicals.  These toxins would cause genetic mutations in the hope that some of these mutations can be used for their beneficial properties such as wheat plants with a higher per acre yield.  The process of artificially inducing genetic mutations in living organisms is known as mutagenesis.  According to an article by Rhodale Press4, the newest strain of wheat known as Clearfield Wheat, which is sold by the world’s largest chemical manufacturer, BASF, has been created by inducing mutations using a highly toxic chemical known as sodium azide.  According to the Rhodale article this new form of genetically altered wheat is unable to survive in nature and must be kept alive by using other toxic chemicals and fertilizers.  Obviously these techniques have been used in attempt to produce “better” and more highly yielding wheat varieties, but what about the other genetic variations which invariably occur during this process of mutagenesis?  Has anyone ever tested these wheat hybrids to see if ingesting them would be harmful to humans?  It appears that there is a very large experiment occurring at this moment involving most of the world’s population without their knowledge. 

 The genetic alteration of wheat has led to varieties that have dramatically increased wheat production around the world allowing for yields of 8 – 10x’s more wheat per acre as compared with its earlier mid-twentieth century counterpart.  Most of us would consider this a modern scientific miracle—more wheat…  less starvation, right?  Well, it’s not that simple.  As the old margarine commercial on television once said—“it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”  The process of modern wheat hybridization and its effects on human physiology is just one example of many that occurs as a result of straying from the natural processes that humans evolved with over millennia.  Each time we stray from the laws of Nature, the more problems we tend to have.  If I were to give one piece of advice it would be to live your life as close to the way our primitive ancestors lived theirs.

1 Gastroenterology. 2005 Feb;128(2):393-401,
2 Scand J Gastroenterol. 2006 Nov;41(11):1305-11
3Curr Pharm Des. 2003;9(16):1325-30.

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