Research shows that when we eat grains, our brain function decreases, we can develop brain damage over time and our IQ can even lose a few points. Call it Grain Brains. Compounds in grains cause a myriad number of problems in the body, namely less brains.
Most cavemen did not eat grains, so we’re not very genetically adapted to them. Some research indicates that a few cavemen ate a minute amount of ancient grains in season, but in microscopic quantities compared to what we eat today. Grains are low in nutrients and contain toxins that promote brain dysfunction and disease. Interestingly, wheat, of all foods, is the most highly correlated with mortality (3). You’re not going to be too smart if you’re dead.
When grains began cultivation about 10,000 years ago the average height of a man decreased from an average of 5 feet 8 inches (173cm) to 5 feet 3 inches (141 cm)). (10) Only in the 20th century, with increased wealth and nutrition, have we regained our stature. Even today, in cultures subsisting largely on grains, children’s growth is stunted and stature is reduced.
This period in evolution also saw the birth of modern health problems – heart disease, osteoporosis, etcetera – as evidenced by Egyptian mummies. Chronic inflammatory and degenerative conditions are endemic in grain-consuming populations – exactly what we see in the United States. Today, malnutrition in utero from grains has caused our skull to become too small to accommodate our teeth, resulting in crooked teeth and impacted wisdom teeth. Grains make you stupid, too. Thanks bread.
Some people can tolerate relatively new foods like grains – just like some can drink and smoke their whole lives and live to 110. Nothing can kill these people. They’re like cockroaches. Some people are perfectly healthy eating grains, but most are not.
Plants, like any other living thing, need to survive. Humans and other mammals can run away from predators. Plants cannot. The poor things are stuck in the ground. So they had to develop other defense mechanisms – anti-nutrients called phytates, lectins and gluten– to deter animals from eating them. Call it Mother Nature’s pesticide strategy. These substances cause intestinal distress, malnutrition and even infertility.
Hunter-gatherers in some ways were smarter than us because they figured this out and soaked their grains prior to consumption. Modern humans are really smart, but are turning a blind eye and no longer heeding plant’s weapons of mass destruction. Allow me to wake you up.
These anti-nutrient toxins are most abundant in the bran and germ, or outer layers of the grain, but are present throughout the grain. There are a lot of grain toxins – too many to mention in this tiny little blog post – but I will go over the major troublemakers. They include:
Gluten (the Latin word for glue) is the primary protein found in grains like wheat, barley, rye and oats. Because it is hard to digest, gluten enters the small intestine undigested, where it causes intestinal irritation. This inflammation can contribute to all kinds of health conditions, including autoimmune diseases, IBS, thyroid issues, neurological and pain disorders.
Phytates, which bind up phytic acid, are an anti-nutrient. Phytic acid, once released from its phytate bond, is a powerful chelator, which means it binds with minerals and takes them out of your body. This could be positive, toxin-reducing, and cancer-fighting, but is usually negative, prohibiting your system from absorbing minerals. It is a common misconception that the phytates in grains remove minerals beyond that which is in the grain you are eating. This is not true. The phytates only remove what is in the grain itself. Because phytates make minerals bio-unavailable you can forget about all those healthy vitamins and minerals you think you’re getting from your oatmeal.
Lectins are essentially carb-binding proteins. Their binding powers can lead them to attach to the intestinal lining and wreak havoc. Lectins are responsible for most of wheat’s and other grain’s ill effects. They are particularly resistant to breakdown with soaking and fermenting, meaning even proper preparation doesn’t get rid of these nasty buggers. They are hard to digest and bioaccumulate in your body, causing all sorts of health issues. They promote leptin resistance, contributing to obesity. Even in small quantities, lectins are pro-inflammatory, immunotoxic, cardiotoxic and neurotoxic. Just plain nasty stuff.
A plant’s anti-nutrient toxin strategy serves to prevent digestion of its seed. Grains are seeds. One of the ways that seeds get spread around is in poop. Presumably, your poop. If you eat the seed (which we know you are), the seed will hopefully pass undigested in your poo to a new location and propagate the species. Our ancestors knew this intuitively and always went through great lengths to prepare grains to make them more digestible. So should you – or avoid them.
Perhaps if grains had been around long enough for us to develop an adaptation to them, we would be able to eat them without such dire health consequences. As of today, we simply do not have the digestive capacity necessary to mitigate the harmful effects of lectins, gluten, and phytates.
The Worse Offenders: Gluten Grains
Brains and nerves get damaged by gluten. Medical research reveals that gluten commonly causes nerve damage, brain disease, mental disturbance, learning disorders, fatigue, and poor growth. Gluten causes inflammation in the intestines preventing nutrient absorption, which causes nutritional deficiencies. But most sufferers from gluten-harm remain completely unaware of it!
Most cannot tolerate gluten-containing grains (a protein in wheat, rye, barley and oats) — even people that are not considered gluten sensitive or present with symptoms of intolerance. It is estimated that one in three people have intolerance to gluten-containing grains. A recent study shows that even people without gluten intolerance or celiac disease suffer inflammation after consuming a very small amount of gluten. (1) Some can tolerate grains in small quantities — not as a staple in the diet like we find in the Standard American Diet (SAD 🙁 ). If you do include these relatively new foods into your diet, they should be kept to a minimum.
Dr. Maios Hadjivassiliou of the United Kingdom, a recognized world authority on gluten sensitivity, has reported in the journal, The Lancet, that, “gluten sensitivity can be primarily and at times, exclusively a neurological disease.” That is, people can manifest gluten sensitivity by having issues with brain function without any gastrointestinal problems whatsoever. Dr. Hadjivassiliou indicates that the antibodies that a person produces when they are gluten sensitive can be directly and uniquely toxic to the brain.
Since his original investigations in 1996, the recognition that gluten sensitivity can lead to brain function disorders has led to a virtual explosion of scientific papers describing this relationship. Researchers in Israel have noted neurological problems in 51 percent of children with gluten sensitivity and further, describe a link between gluten sensitivity and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As authors in a recent issue of the journal Pediatrics stated in their research:
This study suggests that the variability of neurologic disorders that occur in celiac disease is broader than previously reported and includes softer and more common neurologic disorders including chronic headache, developmental delay, hypotonia and learning disorders or ADHD.
The link between gluten sensitivity and problems with brain function, including learning disabilities, difficulty staying on task and even memory dysfunction, is actually not that difficult to understand. Gluten sensitivity is caused by elevated levels of antibodies against a component of gluten, gliadin. This antibody (anti-gliadin antibody) combines with gliadin when a person is exposed to any gluten containing food like wheat, barley or rye. Testing for the antibody can be performed in any doctor’s office. When the antibody combines with this protein, specific genes are turned on in a special type of immune cell in the body.
When these genes are turned on, inflammatory chemicals are created called cytokines, which are directly detrimental to brain function. In fact, elevated cytokines are seen in such devastating conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and even autism. Basically, the brain does not like inflammation and responds quite negatively to the presence of cytokines. The flipping of these gene switches negatively impact brain health and function.
Interested in a more detailed discussion about gluten sensitivity and the many diseases triggered by gluten-containing grains? See my article Gluten Sensitivity Affects 1 in 3.
Grains Suppress Digestion
For every gram of wheat bran eaten, fecal weight increases by 5.7 grams. Eating wheat causes large amounts of food to be excreted instead of digested. (6) And when you don’t get maximum nutrition from your food, you eventually suffer Grain Brains.
Gluten is toxic to intestinal cells. It inhibits cell replication, changes membrane structure, reduces the size of villi that absorb nutrients, and increases secretions that cause oxidative damage. (10) Gluten sabotages the gut, reducing its surface area and impairing digestion. How will you be smart if you aren’t absorbing all the nutrients from your food?
Gluten Causes Intestinal Permeability
If you are sensitive to gluten (and even if you’re not), a serious amount of damage may occur in your body long before you have symptoms or intestinal distress. This damage won’t necessarily be limited to your digestive system, as gluten most notably negatively impacts the thyroid and triggers autoimmune diseases (10). The insidious nature of gluten is that the damage often occurs silently and goes unrecognized for a very long time.
One of the most well studied aspects of gluten is its propensity to increase intestinal permeability (4). An increase in intestinal permeability can lead to a very wide variety of health problems, including reduced brain function. The problems begin like this:
- As all toxins do, gluten triggers an immune response. Almost everyone has an immune response to gluten (10).
- This immune response clears gluten from the intestine, but causes inflammation.
- Inflammation kills intestinal cells and loosens the tight cell junctions forming the gut wall, creating ‘holes’. (1)
- These holes in the intestinal walls are what is known as leaky gut syndrome.
- Undigested gluten proteins pass between these loosened cells and into the blood, triggering an immune response.
- Now, other harmful substances can pass into the blood and settle in your organs, including your brain. These include, but are not limited to, toxins from food, including preservatives and food additives. Pathogens such as bacteria, fungus, parasites and viruses can also enter your body.
- The stage is set for these toxins to cause a variety of nonspecific symptoms and illnesses.
Toxicity flows from your gut throughout your body and into your brain, clogging the brain with toxicity and preventing it from performing its normal functions. Natasha-Campbell McBride elaborates further:
…As a result, [a person’s] digestive system — instead of being a source of nourishment — becomes a major source of toxicity. These pathogenic microbes inside their digestive tract damage the integrity of the gut wall. So all sort of toxins and microbes flood into the bloodstream and get into the brain.
Grains Cause Brain Damage
Wheat contains high amounts of wheat germ agglutinin (WGA). This lectin is largely responsible for many of wheat’s ill effects. Because lectins are so hard to digest, they tend to bioaccumulate in your body, where they can interfere with biological processes. WGA is particularly troublesome in this regard. Studies indicate it has a number of health-harming characteristics and activities:
- Neurotoxicity – WGA can cross your blood brain barrier through a process called “adsorptive endocytosis,” (2) pulling other substances with it. WGA may attach to your myelin sheath (8) and is capable of inhibiting nerve growth factor (9), which is important for the growth, maintenance, and survival of certain neurons.
- Excitotoxicity –Wheat and soy contain exceptionally high levels of glutamic and aspartic acid, which makes them excitotoxic. Excitotoxicity is a pathological process where glutamic (think MSG) and aspartic acid (think aspartame) cause an over-activation of your nerve cell receptors, which can lead to calcium-induced nerve and brain injury. These two amino acids may contribute to neurodegenerative conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s disease, and other nervous system disorders such as epilepsy, ADD/ADHD and migraines.
I love you french baguette! No, I hate you!
Grains Can Cause Your Brain to Shrink
We’ve lost 10% of our brain mass since the dawn of agriculture. In other words, we’re devolving thanks to grains. This is due to consuming a larger portion of the diet as grains, which are far nutritionally inferior to animal protein. So, our brains shrank. Thanks a lot red velvet cupcakes.
When you eat grains, whether they are whole grains or not, your blood sugar spikes. These grains are broken down into simple sugars that cause you to release insulin to reduce this high blood sugar. The constant release of insulin (the fat storage hormone) can eventually lead to diabetes and insulin resistance. A constant state of high blood sugar destroys the body and the brain.
If you have developed full blown diabetes from eating too many grains and sugar, substantial evidence shows an association between type 2 diabetes and cerebral atrophy, cognitive impairment, and dementia.(5)
Blood sugar merely in the “high normal” range – short of levels associated with diabetes or even pre-diabetes – can lead to brain shrinkage, according to results of a new study from Australia. Using multiple brain scans, researchers at the Australian National University in Canberra found evidence of the shrinkage in seniors between the ages of 60 and 64 whose blood sugar was high but not high enough for a diagnosis of diabetes or pre-diabetes. The researchers noted a decrease in brain volume of six to 10 percent in those participants whose blood sugar was “high normal.”
This study suggests that brain changes affecting memory and emotional processing can occur even before blood sugar reaches pre-diabetic levels. This makes a strong case for reducing any food, including grains that cause a spike in blood sugar. (5)
Grains Decrease IQ
Dr. Paul Jaminet, author of the The Perfect Health Diet, refers to an interesting study showing a correlation between wheat and lowered IQ:
[Another] really interesting study came out of Japan this summer. Children in Japan who eat wheat every day… are almost four IQ points lower than children who eat rice. The nice thing about rice (it’s the only grain that we recommend in our diet) is that the toxins are destroyed in cooking. Cooked white rice is very low in toxins. That gives us a measure of how much wheat may be impacting health. That’s interesting, because the IQ difference between Asians and Americans is about four points. It could be just the difference between eating wheat and rice.
The Final Word
When it comes to things that we, humans, are not adapted to eat and digest, wheat and its gluten protein is probably at the top of the list. It’s very sad that wheat is so omnipresent in our society and many health conditions would probably not even exist if it were not for our high consumption of wheat. Positive changes are often noticed immediately after removing wheat and other gluten containing grains from the diet. Consider trying it for a few months.
Even though most people can indulge in less healthy choices from time to time without negative consequences, wheat and other gluten containing grains should, in my opinion, be completely avoided, especially for those who suffer any kind of autoimmune disease, digestive or inflammatory condition. All evidence points to the idea that most grains should be excluded from the diet – with the exception of white rice. White rice does not seem to cause the problems that other grains do. (10) Time to buy a good rice cooker.
When you begin to review the evidence stacked up against whole grains, it becomes rather self-evident that our reliance on wheat and other grains may be one of the primary culprits for the poor health of so many. Grains are the food most strongly associated with mortality (3). They also reduce IQ and brain volume. There may be no single step that can do more to improve your health and intelligence than nixing bread and grains from your diet. Say no to Grain Brains!
Chris Kresser made a very interesting speech at the Ancestral Health Symposium in 2013. He postulated that the reason we don’t tolerate grains so well is not because we can’t digest them, but because we’re missing the crucial gut bacteria needed for their digestion. Many hunter-gatherer cultures discovered by Weston A. Price thrived on diets comprised of grains. How could this be if grains are so detrimental to our health?
A theory that’s prevalent in the Paleo community goes something like this: the shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture led to an increase in disease and a decline in health. There’s no doubt this is true, but the idea that compounds like gluten and lectins were responsible for this decline isn’t very well supported by the evidence. Significant increases in chronic inflammatory disease didn’t happen for the most part until the last hundred years. Yet, the change from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture happened roughly 10,000 years ago. So there has to be something else that explains this decline in health. If it were true that gluten and lectins in grains significantly increased the risk of disease, they would have done that long ago.
Chris Kresser postulates a very interesting theory that it’s possible that these potentially harmful compounds in new foods are not a significant risk factor for inflammatory disease as long as the Paleolithic microbiome – our gut bugs – is still intact. When our microbiome is depleted or deficient, then these foods can become risk factors for inflammatory disease. Unprotected from adequate colonies of probiotics, we develop leaky gut, food intolerances, allergies, autoimmune issues, inflammatory conditions like asthma and a host of other diseases.
Chris Kresser went on to say in his speech that if we still had the Paleolithic microbiome intact, we could tolerate grains and all of these compounds with no problem. This point is key because it resolves some of the apparent conflicts in the ancestral paradigm. It can explain the reason many cultures ate grains for thousands of years and the health conditions we attribute to grains were incredibly rare.
You can expand your Paleo diet. Some people who spend time overhauling their gut bacteria are able to introduce grains, dairy or other non-Paleo foods – even if they’ve had previous intolerances – and do just fine. It also explains why some people are able to tolerate those foods with apparently no problems while others can’t. So, work on good gut health (See Probiotics) and you will be able to safely enjoy grains and other foods not Paleo given you don’t have food intolerances to them for other reasons.
Given this new information, if you’re having health problems, go off grains. Repair your gut. Then reintroduce to see if you’re ready. You’ll know when and if grains will work for you. And if you don’t have the proper gut flora to handle them, they cause all the problems mentioned in this blog post.
Have I left anything out? Did it take you forever to figure out you had a sensitivity with grains? Which grains seem to be working for you? Tell me your story by leaving a comment below.
Click here for References+
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8. Dolapchieva, S. “Distribution of Concanavalin A and Wheat Germ Agglutinin Binding Sites in the Rat Peripheral Nerve Fibres Revealed by Lectin/glycoprotein-gold Histochemistry”. The Histochemical Journal. London: Chapman & Hall, 1996.http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF02331422?LI=true#page-1.
9. Hashimoto, S., A. Hagino. Wheat germ agglutinin, concanavalin A, and lens culinalis agglutinin block the inhibitory effect of nerve growth factor on cell-free phosphorylation of Nsp100 in PC12h cells. Cell Structure and Function Journal. Kyoto: Nihon Saibo Seibutsu Gakkai. 1989. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2720800#.
10. Jaminet, Paul. Jaminet, Shou-Ching. The Perfect Health Diet. Scribner, 2012.
11. Mercola, Joseph. 3 Ounces of This May Be Harming Your Brain. July 4,2011. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/07/04/can-eating-this-common-grain-cause-psychiatric-problems.aspx
12. Mercola, Joseph. This Food Can Slow Your Brain – and it Lowered IQ 4 Points in Recent Study. January 7, 2012. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/01/07/dr-paul-jaminet-interview.aspx
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