While researchers have connected the dots between refined carbs like wheat flour and sugar in processed foods to a host of modern ailments like diabetes and cancer, new findings increasingly link these foods to neurological illnesses as well, including Alzheimer’s and depression. What’s so bad about our love affair with wheat? A lot and that’s even if you’re not gluten-sensitive, according to neurologist David Perlmutter and author of Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar–Your Brain’s Silent Killers.
Wheat is a main ingredient in the American diet. We mostly consume it as refined white flour in pastas, breads, pizza, crackers, baked goods and cereals but wheat often appears in anything from sauces, ice cream, condiments, healthy-sounding vegetarian and vegan products to hand creams, sometimes stripped down to just its gluten. It’s everywhere. And if you’re aghast at the thought of ever giving up your beloved breads, pizzas, and bagels, there’s a chemical reason for that beyond their tastiness.
While most diet and health guides focus on our bodies in terms of cardiovascular health and slimming down, few point out the connection between our diets and their impacts on our brain. We might accept that diabetes, a modern disease, is preventable and in some cases reversible, but what about neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia? Most times we think such illness are random or a trick of genetics but actually, Perlmutter points out, they are just as preventable. We are what we eat and the chemistry of our food can affect our hormones, immune systems, and even switch on and off our genes. Even when it comes to our brains.
In Grain Brain, Dr. Perlmutter shows the relationship between how we live and eat – with a large focus on wheat, its gluten, and blood sugar spiking carbs – and our risks of developing an array of brain related problems, whether diagnosed as a toddler or at the other end of the age spectrum.
What’s Really So Bad About Wheat?
The wheat of today bears little resemblance to the wheat our ancestors cultivated and ate for millennia – and consumed in small amounts. Today, by the time wheat gets to our food products, its processing, bleaching and bromiding have stripped it of all its actual nutrition to leave a fine white powder that acts very much like sugar on the body. Whole wheat isn’t much better. Further, we’ve had little time as a species to adapt to the huge shift to eating this food and its associated carb load. We only started cultivating wheat 10,000 years ago, a drop in our evolutionary bucket. On top of that, we’ve only started consuming it in massive and highly refined amounts in the past century. Is it any wonder our bodies and brains, still operating on our ancient genetic software, respond with a host of afflictions and allergies?
In New York Times #1 bestseller Grain Brain, Dr. Perlmutter explains the devastating effects of gluten, sugar and carbs on the body but particularly on the brain. Wheat is particularly damaging because it contains gluten, an allergen with far-reaching impacts both on our cardiovascular and nervous systems, but also because this carb (like many others) will rapidly spike your blood sugar, leading to a host of insulin resistance-related diseases. This is how wheat packs a disastrous one-two punch.
Even if you’re not sensitive or allergic to gluten, that’s actually of little significance because of the silent way it and high blood sugar will still impact your physiology – including your brain chemistry. Here is a list of just some of the diseases and conditions wheat and high carb consumption can contribute to, exacerbate, and possibly cause due to gluten sensitivity and/or high blood sugar:
- Alzheimer’s and dementia
- Celiac disease
- Chronic migraines and headaches
- Decreased libido
- Stress and anxiety
- Intestinal problems including celiac, gluten sensitivity, irritable bowel, and leaky gut
- Focus and concentration problems
- Neurological conditions including depression and schizophrenia
- ALS and Parkinson’s disease
- Gut biota disruption
- Autoimmune problems
- Memory problems and mild cognitive impairment
- Mood disorders
- Overweight and obesity
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome
- Turret syndrome and more
Perlmutter says the main culprits in our generation’s tragic brain and neurologically related illnesses like Alzheimer’s are doing one or more of the following:
- Living with chronic high blood sugar levels even in the absence of diabetes
- Eating too many carbohydrates throughout our lives
- Opting for a low-fat diet that minimizes cholesterol
- Have undiagnosed sensitivity to gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye and barley – which he considers the greatest and most dangerous health threat to humanity
To reiterate, wheat is at ground zero of the modern health epidemics running rampant in America and going global. This is because of two factors. First, wheat contains gluten – which causes an onslought of its own health-related damage. Second, wheat quickly spikes blood sugar which leads to another slew of illnesses and diseases. Let’s start with gluten.
What the Heck is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein composite found in wheat (as well as rye, barley, spelt and bulgur) that acts as an adhesive material in many flour products but has other applications used across various industries, like personal care products and medications. It is one of the most commonly used food additives and gives breads, cakes and cookies their chewy quality and is used in the dairy industry to help cheese spreads and margarine retain their smooth texture and prevents sauces and gravies from curdling. It thickens personal care products like shampoos and even eye mascara.
A person can be allergic to gluten. Gluten is not a single molecule but several, one of which has 12 proteins by itself. You can be allergic or sensitive to one or all of these components of gluten and may experience inflammation of some sort as a result. It’s more well-known for causing digestive problems for those with an allergy like celiacs or who have a sensitivity, but its neurological problems can affect anyone in the general population. One in 30 individuals likely have celiac disease but one in four are vulnerable to the disease, with the greatest risk among those of northern European ancestry. People can carry genes that code for a mild gluten intolerance, giving rise to a wide spectrum of gluten sensitivity that can effect any organ in the body, including the brain.
Gluten is an instigator in inflammation, which is the main culprit for many illnesses, including degenerative neurological ones. Unfortunately our brains don’t have pain sensors so when we suffer from problems, we will suffer silently, free of pain, until other symptoms appear – and by then reversing the damage may be difficult or impossible. Additionally, we can suffer neurological symptoms from gluten sensitivity without experiencing any digestive issues and it is a misconception to consider it as a disease of the gut.
Gluten sensitivity is something that rarely shows up on the usual celiac disease tests since celiac disease is the most severe form of reaction to gluten. Yet gluten sensitivity can lead to all sorts of chronic problems, including those listed above. Dr. Perlmutter in his neurology clinic routinely orders gluten sensitivity tests for his patients. By prescribing a gluten-free diet he has reversed chronic problems like migraines, mood disorders, ADHD, and movement disorders, just to name a few cases. Most general practitioners, however, are not aware of the dietary impacts on our brain and neurological systems so don’t know to check for gluten sensitivity when patients with these disorders come to them. Many neurological doctors as well focus only on treatment through medication rather than prevention or reversal through diet.
Personally, I suffered from a host of ailments for years, from acne and digestive issues to chronic and intense joint pain, movement restriction in an arm and shoulder, regular bouts of depression and stress, insomnia and more. Reading Grain Brain by Dr. Perlmutter and Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis led me to an epiphany. After going on a gluten-free diet, all of these chronic problems reversed, starting in days and completing within a year. The change was so profound that I can’t imagine ever going back on wheat. The rare times I went off the rails and binged, all the symptoms started resurfacing. Because of that, I’m very much now whole-heartedly on the gluten-free bandwagon. See my articles What Happened When I Gave Up Bread and How I Went from the Standard American Diet to a Whole Foods Diet in a Year and Reclaimed My Health.
It’s Oh So Deliciously Addictive
Does the idea of dropping your bagel or pizza habit to cut out gluten sound like the end of the world? What’s the point of living if you can’t have cake and cookies, right? But the reason why we’re so emotionally attached to our floury favorites is pure addiction. The gluten in wheat breaks down into morphine-like compounds that bind with the opiate receptors in the brain, producing a mild euphoria. That’s why you get that rush of warm happiness when you bite into a chocolate pastry or chow down on pasta. It’s also why you go into unpleasant withdrawal without these foods and why you can’t bear to think about living without them.
Your opiate receptors are talking loudly and calling the shots. “You” don’t actually love breads and floury products, your pleasure centers do and they’ve hijacked most people to the point that they’ll just shrug in the face of mounting research documenting the immense neurological damage – including Alzheimer’s – from gluten and blood sugar-spiking foods. Is it any wonder why we have a refined flour/carb problem in America?
Blood Sugar Levels Are Key to Know
As if the opiate-like effects of gluten weren’t bad enough, we have to also deal with wheat’s carb-induced sugar rush and rolercoaster of spiking blood sugar, crash, craving, and constant need to eat more to reverse the carb hangover. While most people who aren’t diabetic or pre-diabetic rarely worry about their blood sugar levels, what’s considered a “normal” range is actually somewhat deceiving. Perlmutter cites Australian research that found those individuals with higher blood sugar levels, even in the normal range, were more likely to show a loss of brain volume in areas associated with memory and cognitive skills. This suggests that blood sugar levels even in the normal range can have an impact on brain health.
Wheat, even whole wheat, spikes blood sugar. As Perlmutter notes, a slice of whole wheat bread (glycemic index 71) will spike your blood sugar more than a Snickers bar (GI 55), a tablespoon of pure white sugar (GI 68), or banana (GI 54). Over time this leads to insulin resistance, the precursor to diabetes, a disease ravaging the country and going global. Insulin disruption is also linked to cardiovascular disease and hypertension, among other detrimental illnesses and chronic conditions.
As Perlmutter points out, Alzheimer’s is now commonly referred to as type 3 diabetes and its link to insulin resistance and diabetes cannot be understated. If you’re diabetic, you have twice the risk of getting Alzheimer’s. Perlmuter, in Grain Brain, goes into great detail about the chemistry behind Alzheimer’s and its links to inflammation from gluten and the damage inflicted from high blood sugar. Don’t skip those chapters.
A Better Way of Living
Perlmutter points out that we’ve gone from a high fat, low carb diet to a high carb, low fat diet over the past 50 years. We live on processed and high carb foods laden with sugar, salt and bad fat. With that has come snowballing growth in diabetes, heart disease, cancer, chronic kidney disease, Azlheimer’s and even depression (which this last year came out as a leading killer of Americans due to the number of suicides and opiate overdoses). In Grain Brain, Perlmutter’s goal is to help us preserve our current health, prevent later disease from ever taking root, and easing or reversing our current ailments.
After detailing the neurological impacts of gluten and carbs, Dr. Perlmutter offers a detailed total health plan. He is a big proponent of the ketogenic diet. This high quality fat, low carb diet has been shown in over 20 studies to help you lose weight and improve your health by lowering blood sugar and improving insulin sensitivity. A high carb diet keeps fat cells locked due to insulin resistance but a low carb diet increases insulin sensitivity, releases fat stores and allows for weight loss. One study found that the diet improved insulin sensitivity by 75% and in another, 95% of participants were able to either reduce or eliminate their diabetes medication.
In Grain Brain, Perlmutter outlines a diet optimized for boosting the brain and health. What’s notable is that he recommends a mostly whole foods diet that includes meat and seafood and is high in quality fat content. Processed foods are definitely out – so are grains, starches, beans, tubers and sugar.
Many people might wonder why so much fat? Perlmutter shows how the brain, our fattiest organ, lives more efficiently on fat than on glucose or fructose. Our ancestors’ diet was 5% carbs, 20% protein and 75% fat. Our brains are geared toward this history, not toward the modern glut of carbs we feed it today, which clocks in at over 60% of our diet. Cholesterol is essential to a thriving brain. It’s a nutrient fundamental to the function of neurons and plays the key role as the building block of the cell membrane. It acts like an antioxidant and a precursor to supporting elements like vitamin D, as well as sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. Cholesterol only becomes “bad” when damaged – oxidized – by sugar molecules in the blood.
The multi-generational Framingham study that began in the 1978 and published in 2005 found that those people consuming more cholesterol had less cognitive problems than those consuming the least, completely upsetting the common belief that a high fat diet was unhealthy, especially when it comes to neurological problems. Meanwhile those with high blood sugar levels are at much greater risk for brain shrinkage. Think about that the next time you’re about to take a bite of your blood sugar spiking morning toast (remember, it has higher glycemic index than a Snickers bar, table sugar or banana).
Perlmutter goes beyond diet though in his total health plan and notes the benefits of physical activity on cognition – even more so than cognitive stimuli like crossword puzzles and going to museums. The more physical activity we undertake and the higher the impact, the more studies show we will benefit cognitively (as much as 1800% over the sedentary), whether that’s improving our memories or decreasing our risks for dementia and Alzheimer’s.
A Neurologist’s Take
Grain Brain is an interesting – and disturbing – read because the author is a neurologist. His writing reflects research on our modern dietary habits and their impact on our brains and cognition, not just our waistlines or hearts. This book was one of a handful that turned my health completely around. What was terrifying about going off gluten was the implications on my mental and neurological health. After all, just by going off gluten and easing off sugar, my moods evened out and I haven’t suffered depression since. This and the end of my inflamed joints also made me wonder what else I was unknowingly suffering from thanks to gluten and higher blood sugar levels. What was wheat doing to my brain and nervous system that I couldn’t feel?
As someone among a growing number who has found relief from a host of seemingly unrelated symptoms by quitting gluten and refined carbs, I hope you’ll pick up a copy of Grain Brain, quit gluten, cut out added sugars, and watch your intake of blood sugar spiking carbs. Do this, which means adopting a whole foods diet, and you’re sure to take control of your health and enjoy your life more fully.
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