Wheat and Gluten: Bad for Your Brain

The gluten in modern wheat and high-carb diets have led to a rise in brain problems and obesity. Two medical authorities explain why and what to do about it.

grains and bread

Wheat and gluten are under attack.

First there was the bestseller Wheat Belly which blamed wheat for the American epidemic of obesity.

Next, an equally controversial and hard-hitting book hit the shelves, Grain Brain.

These books contends that too many carbs, wheat and gluten in particular, are destroying our brains and may even be the cause of Alzheimer’s.

How did the “staff of life” get to be so bad for us?

Here’s what these two well-respected authors had to say.

Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter

Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar–Your Brain’s Silent Killers became an instant bestseller when it was released in the fall of 2013.

No doubt the bestseller Wheat Belly helped to pave the way.

The author of Grain Brain, Dr. David Perlmutter, is uniquely qualified to speak about the effects of food on the brain.

He is a neurologist and Fellow of the American College of Nutrition.

He has an active practice at the Perlmutter Health Center in Naples, Florida where he uses a variety of  complementary nutrition techniques to treat neurological problems including dementia, stroke, and Alzheimer’s.

Looking for a Better Way to Treat Brain Problems

Dr. Perlmutter started looking at the role diet plays in brain health after he got tired of treating his patients’ symptoms with drugs, which at the time was the only tool in his arsenal.

He describes it as trying to get rid of smoke while the fire’s still burning. 

In his years of practice, he learned that the brain is exquisitely sensitive to the food we eat and that our diet plays a pivotal role in the health and function of our brains.

Too Many Carbs, Too Little Fat

As we’ve moved towards a low-fat diet high in grains, we’ve traded in eating fat for eating more carbs.

We have never been exposed to this level of carbohydrate consumption before in human history and this experiment is not going very well.

homer simpson brainOur bellies are expanding while our brain are shrinking.

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High blood sugar levels correlate directly with brain shrinkage of the hippocampus, the seat of memory and the first target of Alzheimer’s.

Perlmutter states quite emphatically that there is no treatment whatsoever for Alzheimer’s and that drugs flat-out don’t help.

If you begin to mentally lose it in your 60’s and 70’s, it becomes very hard to reverse the trend, so it is much wiser to take steps to prevent mental decline sooner than later. 

Perlmutter found in his practice that nothing is worse for your brain than a low-fat diet.

It contains too many carbohydrates and too little brain-healthy fat.

Excess carbs create inflammation and free radicals, two major causes of brain aging.

foods that contain healthy fatsIn his practice he puts patients on a diet that is 50-60% good fats including olive oil, coconut oil, butter, grass-fed meat, wild salmon, and eggs.

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The brain is 70% fat by dry weight and he finds this much fat in the diet to be ideal.

Glucose is considered the main fuel for the brain, but our brains are quite happy to burn fat which he considers to be “super fuel” for the brain.

One of the biggest ongoing debates in nutrition is what are the best ratios of fat, carbs, and protein.

Perlmutter cites a JAMA study that followed two groups for 12 months.

One group was on the diet popularized by Dr. Atkins — a low carb/high fat/high protein diet.

The second group followed Dr. Ornish’s low fat/low protein/high carbohydrate diet. 

For those of us who have been brainwashed into believing that low-fat is good, it may come as a shock that the people who followed the Atkins diet did better on all health markers including triglycerides, good cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.

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Perlmutter reminds us to think of cholesterol as our brain’s friend.

Low cholesterol levels increase the risk of suicide, depression, and dementia.

The risk of dementia is reduced by 70% in those with high cholesterol.

You read that right — high cholesterol reduces risk of dementia

The Problem With Gluten

In the past 50 years, the wheat we eat has been modified to contain up to 50 times more gluten than it did when our ancestors baked the first loaf of bread.

We are biologically unprepared to handle this big a change in such a short period of time.

Remember that humans have been around for 2.6 million years yet started eating wheat and gluten in any form only 10,000 years ago.

That is a mere blip in our entire existence! Or .004% to be more precise.

Gluten is most commonly associated with wheat but can also be found in other grains like rye, oats, and barley, prepared foods of all kinds, and even medications.

It’s been known for decades that gluten can cause a long list of neurological problems including dementia, headaches, seizures, tremors, depression, memory loss, and epilepsy in those who are gluten-sensitive.

But what hasn’t been realized until recently is how ubiquitous gluten sensitivity is.

If eating gluten tears up your gut, you know you have a problem.

But it turns out that most people have no obvious digestive upset from gluten, so this not a reliable indicator of gluten sensitivity.

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This book is about much more than blasting wheat.

It makes a solid case for how eating more grains and carbohydrates of all kinds, and less goods fats, is taking a toll on our collective brain health.

And it offers suggestions for what you can do about it. 

Grain Brain’s companion cookbook was recently released. 

The Grain Brain Cookbook contains 150 gluten-free brain health recipes. (See more brain food recipes.)

Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis

Why are Americans so fat?

Dr. William Davis, a preventive cardiologist, set out to find the answer to this question after his personal frustration with his big belly in spite of following a supposedly healthy diet and getting regular exercise.

Davis has authored the best-selling book Wheat Belly.

He builds a compelling case for wheat being a major culprit in the modern epidemic of obesity.

He also covers how wheat contributes to a variety of other common health problems, including how wheat affects the brain.

Worse Than Sugar?

woman eating toastThe first fact about wheat that should jolt you is that two slices of whole wheat bread raise blood sugar more than eating a candy bar!

Whole wheat has a glycemic index score of 72 while white sugar has a lower score of 59. 

Davis found in his practice that when patients eliminated wheat, their blood sugar levels and weight went down, while their energy, sleep, mental clarity, concentration, and mood improved.

Your Brain on Wheat

Modern wheat bears no resemblance to the wild wheat that was originally cultivated thousands of years ago.

It has been hybridized and cross bred to increase yields with zero consideration as to whether these new strains of wheat are fit to eat.

Gluten, a protein in wheat that makes dough stretchy, is usually pointed to as the reason wheat is problematic, and for many people it is.

But there are over 1,000 other proteins in wheat that can trigger negative reactions as well. 

Here are the biggest brain-related problems with wheat:

  • The effects of wheat are additive. Over 30% of Davis’s patients went through some level of withdrawal when they quit, similar to quitting smoking. Symptoms included feeling irritable, brain fog, extreme fatigue, depression, and extreme cravings. When gluten is digested, polypeptides are created that cross the blood-brain barrier and bind to morphine receptors in the brain just like opiates do.
  • Wheat worsens schizophrenia, autism, and ADHD.
  • bread basketWheat is a known appetite stimulant. That’s why restaurants serve bread before dinner. It’s not to be nice, they want you to order more food! A person who eats wheat on average will consume 440 more calories per day than someone who avoids it. That many calories can really add up fast!
  • The weight gained from eating wheat tends to settle in the belly. This kind of fat, visceral fat, is particularly unhealthy. It doesn’t just sit there, these fat cells are little inflammation factories that increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, dementia, cancer, and arthritis. Guys take note: belly fat increases estrogen production, something you definitely want to avoid.
  • Cerebellar ataxia is a form of dementia that affects balance and coordination. The cause is unknown and there is no medically accepted cure. According to Davis, up to 50% of those with this disease have abnormal blood markers for gluten and usually this condition can be halted by removing gluten from the diet.
  • One Mayo Clinic study found that celiac disease and dementia can go hand-in-hand and that dementia was fatal in 69% of these cases.

David claims that by eliminating wheat, excess weight often falls off his overweight patients.

While that hasn’t been my experience, I’ve found that a major benefit of going wheat-free is that I no longer have unreasonable hunger or cravings.

But this alone can put you in the driver’s seat about what you choose to eat and help you maintain a normal weight. 

If you are curious about whether wheat is something you should exclude from your diet, by all means read Wheat Belly.

But here’s a *Spoiler Alert*.

You’ll never look at your morning bagel the same way again! 

I have mixed feelings about the recipe section of this book.

I understand that Davis is trying to help people wean themselves off wheat with recipes for wheat-free muffins, carrot cake, pizza, and the like, but was disappointed to see these recipes use the artificial sweetener Splenda.

Some recipes give the option of using Truvia, one of my least favorite brands of stevia since it contains erythritol, a questionable sweetener.

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But don’t read this book for the recipes.

Read it to once and for all dispel the myth that wheat, even whole wheat, is an essential part of a brain-healthy diet. 

Davis’s style is irreverent and in your face.

Some of his statements are laugh-out-loud funny while others are cringe-worthy. But he is never, ever boring.

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Subject: The #1 nutrient every brain needs

You've probably heard that fish is brain food. That's because it's the main dietary source of omega-3 fats, essential building blocks of every cell in your brain.

But unless you eat wild-caught, oily fish like salmon or sardines EVERY day, you're not getting the omega-3s you need.

One solution is to take a fish oil supplement. But only around 10% of the fish oil you take is absorbed.

Some people take krill oil instead. But it's low in DHA, the omega-3 your brain really thrives on.

Here's a solution we found to this dilemma:

The #1 nutrient every brain needs

Deane & Dr. Pat