Why Have Wheat and Gluten Become So Problematic?

It isn’t just your imagination: Wheat allergies and gluten-related health conditions, including celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, are much more common today than they were a few decades ago. There has been a real increase in their prevalence. The question is: Why?

The simple answer is, we humans have strayed a long way from the nutrient-rich, pesticide-free food on which we thrive, and the more we have strayed, the more health problems we have developed. Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are two of many disease expressions of that.

Early Health Problems From Wheat

With all the wheat-based products (e.g., bread, bagels, muffins, cookies, pasta, pizza, and burritos) that Americans and other people around the world eat, it’s automatic to assume that wheat has always been a component of the human diet. But that isn’t true. Before grains became widespread, people primarily ate meat and vegetables and no wheat or other grains.

Grain-based agriculture—the planting and sowing of wild species of gluten-containing wheat and barley—started in the Middle East sometime between 12,000 B.C. and 9,000 B.C. and took 5,000 years to spread through the middle of Europe and reach the fringes of Europe.

Researchers have linked the shift in agriculture with shifts in human health. In an article published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, anthropologists looked at the genetic record and bones of people from previous cultures and came to some interesting conclusions.

“Specifically, demographic reconstructions from archaeological and population genetic records suggest that the agricultural transition led to increased individual fitness and population growth, likely due in part to new food production and storage capabilities. Yet, bioarchaeological analyses of human skeletal remains from this cultural period suggest simultaneous declines in individual physiological well-being and health, putatively from 1) nutritional deficiency and/or 2) increased pathogen loads as a function of greater human population densities, sedentary lifestyles, and proximity to livestock,” the researchers wrote.

1997 article in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition looked more specifically at the impact of wheat on populations historically. After a diet that included gluten grains was adopted, a portion of Europeans “could not recognize gluten as a ‘tolerable’ protein,” according to the article.

“They may not have had any complaints for centuries, since the content of gluten in the grains they ate was low, but when ‘industrial’ quantities of gluten were introduced to improve bread making, their descendants were exposed to unbearable quantities of an intolerable protein. This population … generated a complex defense mechanism (an immunoresponse) against the gluten, which ultimately is the origin of the damage to their intestines and other organs,” the article reads.

Celiac disease is presumably a direct consequence of this development.

Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in the small intestine, produces a wide range of bone abnormalities including osteoporosis, rickets (soft, thin, and bowed bones), gnarled bones from arthritis, dental enamel defects, and other abnormalities involving long bones and cranial bones.

In “Going Against the Grain,” I write: “These skeletal abnormalities increased in number as the cultivation of gluten grains spread throughout Europe and continued to increase as grains became more and more of a staple. By the Middle Ages, when people in Europe had to rely on grains for the vast majority of their calories, bone health was generally horrible, with evidence of dietary stress in many, if not most, skeletons.

“The decline in bone health could have been caused by many factors associated with a high-grain diet (including its high content of mineral-blocking phytate), but widespread celiac disease is one explanation.”

Furthermore, even after agriculture was adopted in other parts of the world, the majority of people didn’t eat gluten-containing grains. Various gluten-free grains or tubers became staples, and some cultures didn’t rely on any grains at all.

Today, however, gluten-based foods, mostly wheat products, have not only been introduced into all of these continents, but are often eaten at every meal.

As I explain in my book, in addition to being a source of the problematic protein gluten, wheat is also high glycemic and high in carbohydrates, lectins (such as wheat germ agglutinin, which increases gut permeability and causes an unhealthy imbalance in gut bacteria), and antinutrients (such as phytate that blocks the absorption of key minerals in the body and leads to a host of health problems resulting from nutrient deficiencies).

Many people aren’t aware that high-wheat diets are implicated in most chronic health problems—everything from bone diseases such as osteoporosis, to iron-deficiency anemia, to autoimmune diseases such as autoimmune thyroid disease and Type 1 diabetes.

Hybridization of Wheat

Some practitioners and researchers believe the health-degrading effects of wheat and gluten became much worse beginning about a half-century ago because of newfangled agriculture techniques—hybridization, backcrossing, and inducing mutations through the use of chemicals—that have been performed on wheat since the 1960s in an effort to increase yield.

The hybridization explanation is most championed by cardiologist Dr. William Davis. In his 2011 book “Wheat Belly,” he writes that wheat gluten proteins undergo considerable structural change with hybridization, and that in one hybridization experiment, 14 new gluten proteins were identified.

The prevalence of autoimmune diseases associated with gluten intake, such as celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, has risen since the hybridization of modern wheat strains—and those conditions are associated with more than 200 different health conditions, Davis writes.

Davis also mentions some studies that suggest there are impairments unique to wheat consumption, including cerebellar ataxia and dementia, heart disease, visceral fat accumulation, and the process of glycation (via the blood sugar-spiking carbohydrate amylopectin A in wheat) that leads to cataracts, diabetes, and arthritis.

Increased Use of Glyphosate on Wheat and Genetically Modified Crops

Another huge change took place in the past several decades—first in our environment and then in our agricultural system. That change was the use of chemical herbicides, especially glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weedkiller Roundup.

Glyphosate isn’t used extensively on wheat, but it’s sprayed on about a third of the fields that grow wheat, typically before the wheat is planted, to clear out weeds, and to a lesser extent, after the wheat has matured, to help it dry.

Many lines of research suggest that exposure to glyphosate sets the stage for people to develop unfavorable changes in their gut and their gut microbiome and, in turn, develop a host of chronic health conditions. These can include, but aren’t limited to, wheat allergy, celiac disease, and gluten sensitivity.

Glyphosate-based weedkillers went to market in 1976 when they were used by consumers on weeds around crops, but not directly on crops.

That dramatically changed with the introduction of herbicide-resistant, Roundup Ready genetically modified organisms (GMOs), such as genetically modified corn and soy, in 1996. The crops were modified to tolerate repeated spraying of this herbicide that kills other plants. There’s no current commercial harvest of wheat modified in this way.

The weedkiller wasn’t just sprayed on GMO crops. Beginning in the 1980s, glyphosate began to be used as a pre-harvest drying agent on non-GMO, gluten-containing crops such as wheat, barley, and oats, and still is to this day, though in limited amounts. A 2017 study found that Americans’ exposure to glyphosate increased by approximately 500 percent since 1994.

In a recent webinar titled “Gluten, Glyphosate, and the Industrialization of Our Food Supply,” four experts spoke, including integrative medicine physician Dr. Zach Bush and science adviser and researcher John Gildea. They work together at the Seraphic Group, a company dedicated to developing root-cause solutions for human and planetary health.

Gildea explained that there are four or five peptides (or chains of amino acids) in gluten that are harmful if they aren’t digested fully down to the amino acid level. Enzymes on the surface of your small intestine can digest those peptides down to the amino acid level where they aren’t harmful, but exposure to glyphosate dramatically reduces the ability of the enzymes to do that.

When the gluten peptides aren’t digested fully, they can cause cell disruption and tight junction disassembly in the gut, which leads to a “leaky gut,” which seems to be a common factor for all intestinal diseases. A 2020 research article by Dr. Alessio Fasano suggested that “leaky gut” is a common factor for the vast majority of chronic inflammatory diseases, Gildea explained.

Bush said that glyphosate, which is found in the residues from the weedkiller in food, is a powerful antibiotic. It kills bacteria and other microorganisms, disrupting the important metabolic function of the microbiome not only in the soil, but also in the gut.

Based on his extensive study on the relationship between the microbiome and human health, Bush laid out the following timeline of events related to the widespread use of glyphosate and the loss of our health:

  • 1976: Glyphosate-based weedkillers went to market, and people sprayed them on weeds, but not directly on crops. No remarkable change in health occurred for the first 10 years.
  • 1980s: Metabolic dysfunction increased, leading to an increase in weight gain and Type 2 diabetes.
  • 1996: Glyphosate as a direct crop treatment began because of the introduction of herbicide-resistant GMOs. Using so much glyphosate led to high residues of glyphosate in our soil systems, water systems, and food.

“The loss of our soil system led to our vulnerability that led to the breakdown of the digestion of key peptides in gluten, which led to a dramatic rise in chronic inflammatory conditions,” Bush said.

“The American gut is fed by a nutrient-depleted, chemically based agricultural system. We have disrupted our capacity for microbiome diversity … in our gut. And with that loss of diversity came the chronic disease epidemics that really went berserk in the 1990s.”

Among those chronic disease epidemics are celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.

The Bottom Line

If you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, eat a gluten-free diet to protect yourself from ill health and bodily damage. But also go further to protect your health by eating organic food and, even better, regeneratively grown organic food.

The use of GMOs and synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides including glyphosate is prohibited on certified organic foods. A 2017 survey of more than 3,000 respondents found that when people ate a non-GMO, mostly organic diet, a wide range of health symptoms improved: Forty-two percent said their gluten sensitivity improved.

But experts including Bush say that growing food through regenerative agricultural practices that rebuild soil health is the way to work with nature and regenerate planetary and human health. When we improve the health of the microbiome in our soil, it inevitably improves the gut microbiome, and we will thus be far less susceptible to developing gluten-related conditions and other chronic health conditions.

Melissa Diane Smith is a holistic nutrition counselor and journalist who has been writing about health topics for more than 25 years. She is the author of several nutrition books, including “Syndrome X,” “Going Against the Grain,” “Gluten Free Throughout the Year,” and “Going Against GMOs.”

This article is part of the gluten-related health conditions and the gluten-free diet series

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