By: William Davis, Medical Doctor,
Addiction. Withdrawal. Delusions. Hallucinations.
I'm not describing mental illness or a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I'm talking about this food you invite into your kitchen, share with friends, and dunk in your coffee.
I will discuss why wheat is unique among foods for its curious effects on the brain, effects shared with opiate drugs. It explains why some people experience incredible difficulty removing wheat from their diet. It's not just a matter of inadequate resolve, inconvenience, or breaking well-worn habits; it's about severing a relationship with something that gains hold of your psyche and emotions, not unlike the hold heroin has over the desperate addict.
While you knowingly consume coffee and alcohol to obtain specific mind effects, wheat is something you consume for "nutrition," not for a "fix." Like drinking the punch at the Jimi Hendrix revival, you may not even be aware that this thing, endorsed by all "official" agencies, is fiddling with your mind.
People who eliminate wheat from their diet typically report improved mood, fewer mood swings, improved ability to concentrate, and deeper sleep within just days to weeks of their last bite of banana bread or baked lasagne. These sorts of "soft" subjective experiences on our brains, however, are tough to quantify. They are also subject to the placebo effect-i.e., people just think they're feeling better. I am, however, impressed with how consistent these observations are, experienced by the majority of people once the initial withdrawal effects of mental fog and fatigue subside. I've personally experienced these effects and also witnessed them in thousands of people. It is easy to underestimate the psychological pull of wheat. Just how dangerous can an innocent bran muffin be, after all?
"BREAD IS MY CRACK!"
Wheat is the Louis Vuitton of foods, unparalleled for its potential to generate entirely unique effects on the brain and nervous system. There is no doubt: for some people, wheat is addictive. And, in some people, it is addictive to the point of obsession. Some people with wheat addiction just know they have a wheat addiction. Or perhaps they identify it as an addiction to some wheat-containing food, such as pasta or pizza. They already understand, even before I tell them, that their wheat-food-addiction-of-choice provides a little "high." I still get shivers when a well-dressed, suburban soccer mum desperately confesses to me, "Bread is my crack. I just can't give it up!"
Wheat can dictate food choice, kilojoule consumption, timing of meals and snacks. It can influence behaviour and mood. It can even come to dominate thoughts. A number of my patients, when presented with the suggestion of removing it from their diets, report obsessing over wheat products to the point of thinking about them, talking about them, salivating over them constantly for weeks. "I can't stop thinking about bread. I dream about bread!" they tell me, leading some to succumb to a wheat-consuming frenzy and give up within days after starting.There is, of course, a flip side to addiction. When people divorce themselves from wheat-containing products, 30 per cent experience something that can only be called withdrawal.
I've personally witnessed hundreds of people report extreme fatigue, mental fog, irritability, inability to function at work or school, even depression in the first several days to weeks after eliminating wheat. Complete relief is achieved by a bread roll or cupcake (or, sadly, more like four rolls, two cupcakes, a packet of biscuits, two muffins, and a handful of brownies, followed the next morning by a nasty case of wheat remorse). It's a vicious circle: abstain from a substance and a distinctly unpleasant experience ensues; resume it, the unpleasant experience ceases-that sounds a lot like addiction and withdrawal to me.
People who haven't experienced these effects pooh-pooh it all, thinking it strains credibility to believe that something as pedestrian as wheat can affect the central nervous system much as nicotine or crack cocaine do. There is a scientifically plausible reason for both the addiction and withdrawal effects. Not only does wheat exert effects on the normal brain, but also on the vulnerable abnormal brain, with results beyond simple addiction and withdrawal. Studying the effects of wheat on the abnormal brain can teach us some lessons on why and how wheat can be associated with such phenomena.
Dr. Christine Zioudrou and her colleagues at the NIH subjected gluten, the main protein of wheat, to a simulated digestive process to mimic what happens after we eat bread or other wheat-containing products. Exposed to pepsin (a stomach enzyme) and hydrochloric acid (stomach acid), gluten is degraded to a mix of polypeptides. The dominant polypeptides were then isolated and administered to laboratory rats. These polypeptides were discovered to have the peculiar ability to penetrate the blood-brain barrier that separates the bloodstream from the brain. This barrier is there for a reason: the brain is highly sensitive to the wide variety of substances that gain entry to the blood, some of which can provoke undesirable effects should they cross into your amygdala, hippocampus, cerebral cortex, or other brain structure. Once having gained entry into the brain, wheat polypeptides bind to the brain's morphine receptor, the very same receptor to which opiate drugs bind.
Zioudrou and her colleagues dubbed these polypeptides "exorphins," short for exogenous morphine-like compounds, distinguishing them from endorphins, the endogenous (internally sourced) morphine-like compounds that occur, for instance, during a "runner's high." They named the dominant polypeptide that crossed the blood-brain barrier "gluteomorphin," or morphine-like compound from gluten (though the name sounds to me more like a morphine shot in the butt). The investigators speculated that exorphins might be the active factors derived from wheat that account for the deterioration of schizophrenic symptoms seen in the Philadelphia VA Hospital and elsewhere.
Even more telling, the brain effect of gluten-derived polypeptides is blocked by administration of the drug naloxone. Let's pretend you're an inner-city heroin addict. You get knifed during a drug deal gone sour and get carted to the nearest trauma emergency room. Because you're high on heroin, you kick and scream at the ER staff trying to help you. So these nice people strap you down and inject you with a drug called naloxone, and you are instantly not high. Through the magic of chemistry, naloxone immediately reverses the action of heroin or any other opiate drug such as morphine or oxycodone. In lab animals, administration of naloxone blocks the binding of wheat exorphins to the morphine receptor of brain cells. Yes, opiate-blocking naloxone prevents the binding of wheat-derived exorphins to the brain. The very same drug that turns off the heroin in a drug-abusing addict also blocks the effects of wheat exorphins.
In a World Health Organisation study of thirty-two schizophrenic people with active auditory hallucinations, naloxone was shown to reduce hallucinations. Unfortunately, the next logical step-administering naloxone to schizophrenics eating a "normal" wheat-containing diet compared to schizophrenics administered naloxone on a wheat-free diet-has not been studied. (Clinical studies that might lead to conclusions that don't support drug use are often not performed. In this case, had naloxone shown benefit in wheat-consuming schizophrenics only, the unavoidable conclusion would have been to eliminate wheat, not prescribe the drug.)
The schizophrenia experience shows us that wheat exorphins have the potential to exert distinct effects on the brain. Those of us without schizophrenia don't experience auditory hallucinations from exorphins resulting from a cheese and tomato roll, but these compounds are still there in the brain, no different than in a schizophrenic. It also highlights how wheat is truly unique among grains, as other grains such as millet and flax do not generate exorphins (since they lack gluten), nor do they cultivate obsessive behaviour or withdrawal in people with normal brains or people with abnormal brains. So this is your brain on wheat: digestion yields morphine-like compounds that bind to the brain's opiate receptors. It induces a form of reward, a mild euphoria. When the effect is blocked or no exorphin-yielding foods are consumed, some people experience a distinctly unpleasant withdrawal.
What happens if normal (i.e., nonschizophrenic) humans are given opiate-blocking drugs? In a study conducted at the Psychiatric Institute of the University of South Carolina, wheat-consuming participants given naloxone consumed 33 per cent fewer kilojoules at lunch and 23 per cent fewer kilojoules at dinner (a total of approximately 1,640 kilojoules less over the two meals) than participants given a placebo. At the University of Michigan, binge eaters were confined to a room filled with food for one hour. (There's an idea for a new TV show: The Biggest Gainer.) Participants consumed 28 per cent less wheat crackers, bread sticks, and pretzels with administration of naloxone.
In other words, block the euphoric reward of wheat and kilojoule intake goes down, since wheat no longer generates the favourable feelings that encourage repetitive consumption. (Predictably, this strategy is being pursued by the pharmaceutical industry to commercialise a weight-loss drug that contains naltrexone, an oral equivalent to naloxone. The drug is purported to block the mesolimbic reward system buried deep within the human brain that is responsible for generating feelings of pleasure from heroin, morphine, and other substances. Pleasurable feelings can be replaced by feelings of dysphoria, or unhappiness. Naltrexone will therefore be combined with the anti-depressant and smoking cessation drug bupropion. From withdrawal effects to psychotic hallucinations, wheat is party to some peculiar neurological phenomena.
Wheat, nearly stands alone as a food with potent central nervous system effects. Outside of intoxicants such as ethanol (like that in your favourite merlot or chardonnay), wheat is one of the few foods that can alter behaviour, induce pleasurable effects, and generate a withdrawal syndrome upon its removal. And it required observations in schizophrenic patients to teach us these effects.
WHEAT: APPETITE STIMULANT
Crackheads and heroin addicts shooting up in the dark corners of an inner-city drug house have no qualms about ingesting substances that mess with their minds. But how about law-abiding citizens like you and your family? I'll bet your idea of mind bending is going for the strong brew rather than the mild stuff at Starbucks, or hoisting one too many Heinekens on the weekend. But ingesting wheat means you have been unwittingly ingesting the most common dietary mind-active food known.
In effect, wheat is an appetite stimulant: it makes you want more-more cookies, cupcakes, bread, chocolate, soft drinks. More bagels, muffins, tacos, baguettes, pizza. It makes you want both wheat-containing and non-wheat-containing foods. And, on top of that, for some people wheat is a drug, or at least yields peculiar drug-like neurological effects that can be reversed with medications used to counter the effects of narcotics.
If you balk at the notion of being dosed with a drug such as naloxone, you might ask, "What happens if, rather than blocking the brain effect of wheat chemically, you simply remove the wheat altogether?" Well, that's the very same question I have been asking. Provided you can tolerate the withdrawal (while unpleasant, the withdrawal syndrome is generally harmless aside from the rancor you incur from your irritated spouse, friends, and co-workers), hunger and cravings diminish, kilojoule intake decreases, mood and wellbeing increase, weight goes down, wheat belly shrinks.
Understanding that wheat, specifically exorphins from gluten, have the potential to generate euphoria, addictive behaviour, and appetite stimulation means that we have a potential means of weight control: lose the wheat, lose the weight.
This is an excerpt from 'Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight' by William Davis MD. Davis is a preventive cardiologist whose unique approach to diet allows him to advocate reversal, not just prevention, of heart disease. His book 'Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight' can be purchased from here