The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar—Your Brain’s Silent Killers
Remember that hot slice of toast dripping in butter you ate for breakfast? Perhaps it had Vegemite on. That bagel, that croissant, or those cereals you wolfed down. Think of the fragrance of coffee and freshly baked bread that you inhaled—two wonderful, wonderful aromas. Remember the anticipation, the delight, the contentment you experienced? Or the euphoric pleasure from eating a doughnut. This pleasure is no surprise. The gluten in your Anzac biscuits and baked goods breaks down in the stomach into a mix of polypeptides that cross the blood–brain barrier. They then bind to the brain’s morphine receptor—the same receptor to which opiates bind—producing a sensorial high, inducing both reward and desire. It’s one reason why industrial food producers load their products with gluten. They also load your food with sugars that light up the same pleasure centers in the brain as cocaine. Unfortunately this is a big deal, a very big deal indeed. Wheat and gluten containing grains can and do cause a myriad of serious health problems, some of which may not manifest until old age.
Most modern, chronic diseases are characterized by inflammation. In our times inflammation is rampant, especially in cultures that follow a standard Western diet, rich in industrial fats, refined carbohydrates, and sugar. Inflammation is not always negative. It is needed to repair wounds, but it is not supposed to be turned on for long periods of time. Chronic and low-level constant inflammation is now associated with heart disease, cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, arthritis, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. It is also linked to milder conditions ranging from headaches and depression to allergies. When our body becomes inflamed it is often noticeable: redness might appear or joints become stiff. If our arteries become inflamed it leads to atherosclerosis, which is often not noticed until it’s too late. Our brain also becomes inflamed, and this is harder still to be aware of, as the brain lacks pain receptors. A sign of an inflamed brain might be headaches, anxiety, depression, or memory loss. MRI scans clearly show when a brain is inflamed.
The main factor driving this upsurge in inflammation is excess insulin. Our cells use glucose, which is taken from our bloodstream, then driven into our cells by insulin, where is it used as fuel. When our cells are constantly exposed to high levels of insulin they adapt, reducing the number of insulin receptors. This causes insulin resistance, leaving glucose in the blood, to which the pancreas responds by pumping out more insulin. It is a vicious circle eventually leading to Type 2 diabetes. This would be bad enough but Type 2 diabetes leads to nerve damage, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. It also leads to even more rampant inflammation. As insulin stimulates growth it promotes fat formation especially around the central areas of the body and the internal organs. This type of fat is called visceral fat. It is particularly dangerous as it’s an organ in its own right, producing hormones, and encouraging yet more inflammation.
Just ten years ago Type 2 diabetes was known as adult-onset diabetes; twenty or thirty years ago it was reasonably rare among adults. Now, there is an unparalleled rise in Type 2 diabetes that is affecting Western and non-Western nations, fueled by junk food, sugar, and the easy availability of cheap, enticing, refined carbohydrates. The United States has seen a tripling of Type 2 diabetes over the last forty years. Between 1997 and 2007 a doubling in the rate of diabetes occurred, corresponding with the advice of the American Diabetic Association to eat 70% of calories from carbohydrates. This rise in insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes has been mirrored by a parallel rise in Alzheimer’s disease. By 2050 it is predicted that there will be hundreds of millions of people with Alzheimer’s disease. The National Health Service in England is predicted to slowly collapse over the next twenty-five years under the weight of dementia sufferers—the country simply cannot afford to treat them.
We know a number of things about insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. For one thing insulin resistance sparks the formation of Alzheimer’s plaques in the brain. In general, there is an association of high insulin levels with brain disease, and obese people are at a much greater risk of impaired brain function. If you want to have healthy brain function into old age, and stable mental health, then you need to have excellent blood sugar control, excellent vascular health, be at the correct weight, and have no chronic inflammation. However, there is another wildcard in the relationship between inflammation, insulin, and brain health—namely, gluten.
Gluten is a glue, a sticky protein made of glutenins and gliadins. It’s what makes your chapattis stick together. A person can be sensitive to both, to either, or to the twelve smaller units that make up gliadin. Any one of these proteins can lead to inflammation. An extreme example of gluten sensitivity is coeliac disease, which is more common than might be imagined. Around one in thirty people have it, and one in four are vulnerable, especially people of Northern European heritage. In Australia roughly 50% of the population carries the genetic markers that are associated with gluten sensitivity. Contrary to popular opinion a sensitivity to gluten does not mean stomach or GI tract problems. Any organ in the body can be affected, including the brain. In people who are susceptible their immune system sends out antibodies against glutenins or gliadins. These turn on genes and produce inflammation often in the form of inflammatory cytokines that attack the brain, damaging tissue, and leaving the brain prone to dysfunction and disease. This has been observed in MRI scans. These same inflammatory cytokines are found in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and autism. In England, brain scans of frequent headache and migraine sufferers revealed dramatic abnormalities in the the brain caused by gluten sensitivity. This led to a prominent paper in The Lancet asserting that gluten sensitivity is common in patients with neurological disease. The same research team at Sheffield University also helped long-term lupus and multiple sclerosis patients into remission by removing gluten from their body. Given the relationship between gluten, inflammation, and immunological response it is not surprising that people with autoimmune diseases respond positively to a gluten-free diet. We also know that gluten can affect developmental delay, learning difficulties, ADHD, depression, and anxiety.
So our enemies appear to be inflammation, high blood sugar, and gluten. Together these along with food abundance create a perfect storm that will make you fat, give you a chronic disease, possibly alter your immune system, perhaps kill you from heart disease, and if you by chance live into old age a fat, dependent, demented existence probably awaits you. Clearly we have some crucial decisions to make while we are still young enough to make them.
One decision that is critical is the type and amount of fat we consume. Alzheimer’s disease patients have significantly reduced fat in their cerebrospinal fluid. The risk of dementia increases by 37% for those that do not consume fish. Those that consume omega-6 fats from seed and vegetable oils are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Thanks to the American National Institutes of Health we know that people with higher cholesterol levels have better cognitive function. The Journal of the American Medical Association, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the Lancet, the British Medical Journal, and some huge meta-studies have all found that saturated fat is not associated with cardiovascular disease, heart disease, or stroke. From what we know from current medical research and traditional diets the two healthiest fats are omega-3 fats, saturated fats, and some monounsaturated fats. The very worst are industrial seed and vegetable oils, with the possible exception of unheated olive oil.
Unfortunately, adopting a traditional foods diet often degenerates into stuffing one’s face with as much meat and fat as one can lay one’s hands on. But consider the following data: the Kitavans eat 69% carbohydrates, the Hadza of Tanzania eat a high proportion of food from natural sugars, and the Turkisenta of Papua New Guinea eat 90% carbohydrates. These are all traditional peoples, they eat a lot of carbohydrates, do not consume grains, and remain fit, lean, and free from modern diseases. Consider also that Northern Europeans have a high tolerance for saturated fat, yet a good proportion of Pakistani women, due to a genetic mutation, will become obese if they eat too much saturated fat. So what to do?
Firstly, don’t get fat. In the Australian vernacular don’t be a salad dodger. The United States is currently the most obese nation on the planet, followed by New Zealand in third place, Australia in fourth place, the United Kingdom is in fifth, and Canada sixth. These countries have the highest rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. They also consume a great deal of grain. However, the area of the world experiencing the most rapid weight gain is the Middle East, especially Egypt where fully 70% of the population is fat, 11% have Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease are rife. The weight of Egyptians has risen dramatically since the 1950s, following increased consumption of grains, cottonseed oil, sugar, and lately fast food. In contrast, rice-loving Bangladesh has an adult obesity rate of just 1% and diabetes only affects 2% of the population.
As we are all of different ethnicities with different genes the upshot is to respect your genome. In the absence of genetic testing eat the foods or food groups that your people traditionally ate. Not necessarily the food of your grandparents, but the foods eaten in your country before industrialization and modernity.
For instance, wheat only became part of the Scottish diet in 1850 since which time the Scots have gone from hardy and robust to the sick men of Europe—cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, diabetes, and obesity are commonplace. While some wheat has been eaten in Northern Europe since the Iron Age it did not form a major part of the diet. Even grains such as rye arrived in the last thousand years. This probably explains why one in four people of northern European heritage are sensitive to gluten. Wheat has been present in Asia for over 2,000 years, yet rice and millet are the dominant grains, and neither contain gluten.
However, the exception to the recent consumption of wheat is the Fertile Crescent, where grains have been eaten for around 10,000 years. It may be that people from the countries of the Levant and Mediterranean are more genetically attuned to eating grains. Yet even here a few words of caution are needed. Scans and DNA analysis of wheat-eating ancient Egyptians reveal atherosclerosis and tooth decay. Early British anthropologists recorded how the Arabs of the Levant were among the most physically impressive people they had seen, noting their diet comprised dairy products, some vegetables, and fruits, but no grains. And the forms of wheat eaten by the people of the Fertile Crescent were Einkorn, Emmer, Kamut, and Khorasan. These grains are different to modern wheat, are still available to buy, and the best option for people who can eat gluten.
If your people do not have a history of eating gluten-containing grains, are not from the Fertile Crescent, have a history of cardiovascular disease or dementia, if you suffer from inflammation, autoimmune disease, or central obesity, if you have a mental, memory, or neurological disease, or have headaches, if you’re fat—then it might be best to avoid grains containing gluten. Rice, corn, millet, buckwheat, and potatoes are fine. Exercise and lift weights regularly, sometimes very intensely, even if you’re a woman. Walk frequently. Fast two days a week, meaning go without food for at least nineteen to twenty-four hours. Avoid sugars, seed and vegetable oils. Finally, eat as your people used to eat before industrialization changed our diets, and even then not too much.