Today, millions of people without celiac disease are electing to be gluten-free, not because they are actually allergic to gluten, but because they have food sensitivities, or simply because wheat has been labeled a dietary no-no. Yet there is compelling scientific and clinical evidence that gluten is often not the underlying issue in the case of digestive woes and food sensitivities. Although eliminating wheat from your diet may alleviate your symptoms, it may be only a temporary solution. Going gluten-free could even make your health worse.
For example, a recent study with 10 healthy adults on a gluten-free diet for one month showed a decrease in beneficial gut bacteria and an increase in unhealthy gut bacteria. The study participants also saw a significant decrease in the functioning of their immune systems. Why? The fiber and carbohydrates in grains, including wheat, feed healthy immunity-boosting microbes in the gut. On top of that, many new “gluten-free” products replace gluten with junk. As I explain in my new book, Eat Wheat: A Scientific and Clinically Proven Approach to Bringing Wheat and Dairy Back into Your Diet, wheat is healthy in a myriad of ways. That said, understanding your “wheat problem” may help you begin to better understand all your digestive issues.
Keep in mind that if you flattened all the villi and lacteals of your intestinal system—what’s called your intestinal skin—it would cover an area ranging somewhere between the size of a studio apartment and a tennis court. That skin, in turn, is blanketed in beneficial microscopic bugs. That’s a lot of bugs! While the science of this microbiome is still in its infancy, we do know that these microbes manufacture hormones, vitamins, and neurotransmitters that help detoxify and assimilate nutrients while playing a role in almost every bodily function—including the way we think and how we feel. If you kill your bugs, you will die.
For the last couple of decades I have been engaged in this new science of the microbiome from a background of Ayurvedic medicine, starting in the ’80s as the codirector of Deepak Chopra’s Ayurvedic Center. Obviously, a traditional Ayurvedic doctor did not know that we coexist with microscopic bugs, or that the bugs in your gut outnumber the cells in your body, or that properly feeding these bugs is a key to health and happiness. Nevertheless, over thousands of years, Ayurvedic doctors actually did figure out how to nurture these bugs—as well as the entire body. Modern science is making that wisdom so much more powerful.
This kind of information is important even if you don’t think you have a digestive problem. First of all, our digestive system has lots of backup villi in case of intestinal damage from stress, aging, toxins, and potential infections, so wheat and dairy intolerances may occur over a very long period. In other words, you may not be suffering—yet. The more insidious problem is this: the microbiome of the average American today has only about one-third the diversity of people in most other parts of the world. That cannot be a good thing—and it may explain why increasing numbers of Americans currently have sensitivities to wheat and dairy. Next will probably be corn.
This is where Ayurveda is so helpful: this ancient science recognizes that these particular sensitivities are parts of the same story. If you find yourself sensitive to wheat or dairy, giving them up won’t change the story—and it’s the story that needs to be changed.
This story, however, is about wheat. The underlying issue with wheat may be a broken-down digestive system caused by:
- Overeating wheat. About 50 years ago, thanks to discredited science and heavy government subsidies, we shifted away from eating healthy fats and began overloading on processed carbs like wheat, which was modified to increase production. Wheat is traditionally a fall harvest that fed people through the winter. We did not evolve eating wheat three times a day all year long. Too much wheat may inflame the intestinal skin.
- Preparing wheat in the wrong ways. All grains, as well as beans, have antinutrients such as phytates that allow seeds to lie dormant and can make them difficult to digest. Traditional cooking techniques like soaking, sprouting, and fermenting the grains break down the phytic acids and reduce both the amount of gluten and the glycemic index of the bread. (Think traditional sourdough.) The health benefits of these traditional, time-consuming preparations have not been improved by speeding them up from days to hours to minutes.
- Eating wheat at the wrong times of day. Jet lag, shift work, nighttime snacking, heavy meals late in the day, and of course stress can wreak havoc on gut bacteria. For example, a study of people flying to Israel showed a single long plane ride can dramatically shift the balance of your intestinal bacteria. So the onset of wheat sensitivity may actually be a symptom of poor meal timing and disrupted circadian rhythms. Removing wheat from one’s diet may allow these underlying problems to get worse.
- Eating wheat out of season. If a deer is fed leafy greens or corn in the middle of the winter (out of season, when the deer lacks the proper microbes), the indigestion may prove lethal. In humans, the production of digestive enzymes like amylase increases during the winter months, making the fall-harvested wheat much easier to digest. A lack of amylase, which is required to digest wheat, is linked to wheat allergies and baker’s asthma—and it is more likely when we eat wheat out of season, like in spring or summer.
- Eating processed wheat. Traditional breads have a short shelf life because they are eaten by microbes. Our processed breads often last weeks without spoiling, which means microbes are not eating them. Fully 90 percent of the cells in the human body are microbial cells—and these microbial cells do the heavy lifting for our digestive processes, including breaking down gluten. So if the microbes outside your body won’t eat your bread, don’t expect the microbes in your belly to digest it.
- Eating poisoned wheat. Perhaps worse than processing is the increasing use of toxins for growing wheat. For example, in the last 15 years it has become a common practice in many areas to spray wheat fields with glyphosate (Roundup) a few days before harvest to help dry and ultimately kill the wheat plant to release more seeds. In a study published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Toxicology, researchers found a strong correlation between celiac disease and the use of glyphosates. It’s hard to imagine that these powerful bug killers are not killing our internal bugs as well. Perhaps not surprisingly, many Americans with wheat sensitivities discover that they have no problem with wheat in France, which does not allow GMO wheat and uses far less pesticide. The French also have higher wheat yields than we do, so we are likely poisoning ourselves for no reason.
Learning to deal with these deeper issues will boost your digestive and detoxification potential. It is your birthright to live a long, healthy, happy life—and enjoy a freshly baked slice of bread with butter.
The Very Best Way to Return to Wheat
Back in the late ’80s, when I codirected Deepak Chopra’s Ayurvedic Center, we had many seriously and terminally ill patients come to our clinic. They would stay for one to two weeks of detox and yoga, and would learn to meditate, spend time in nature, and eat gourmet Ayurvedic food. At the end of everyone’s stay, I would always ask the same question: “What was the most important thing you learned here this week?” I expected them to tell me how much they loved the massages or yoga, but the one thing I heard over and over again—and remember, these were mostly cancer patients—was that they were able to sit down, relax, stop, and enjoy the process of eating their food. They would tell me that in their everyday lives, eating had always felt like they were refueling their car—fill it up and go.
Looking back, I better understand that their observation was absolutely crucial to better health. If you are suffering from digestive problems, here are some basic steps to help you get back to eating everything you want.
Engage your parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, sit down in a relaxed way and smell, taste, and chew your food. You probably know that already—or think you do—so let’s put it another way: Would you rather relax and chew your food at meals or grind your teeth in the night while suffering from an upset stomach? Relaxed time while eating is time well spent. You are nurturing rather than ravaging your microbiome.
Make lunch the biggest meal of the day. Eat heavier and hard-to-digest foods at lunchtime. Ayurvedic wisdom suggests that we do much better when we eat the majority of our food in the daylight hours and minimal amounts at night. Science now confirms that your brain as well as your gut needs the nighttime off from food.
Go to bed early and get up close to sunrise. Regular sleep habits—including going to bed early and not working into the wee hours of the night—are linked to better digestion, optimal health, and longer life.
Give your digestive system a reboot. If you think you are suffering from wheat sensitivity, don’t just give up wheat. Give your entire digestive system a reboot. The Ayurvedic superfood to soothe the intestinal skin is called kitchari, which is made from watered-down rice and mung beans. It’s a great staple in your diet to start the repair process of your intestinal skin. Other great “repair” food are:
- Sweet potatoes
- Cooked beets
- Cooked apples
- Seeds (rather than nuts)
- Well-cooked or steamed vegetables
- Oatmeal, rice, quinoa, and millet
- Small, well-cooked beans and legumes (like mung beans)
- Healthy oils like ghee, coconut oil, and olive oil
- Small amounts of well-cooked white meats or fish
- Small amounts of raw honey (1–2 teaspoons per day)
- Ginger, cinnamon, fennel, and cardamom tea
Consider adding a small amount of organic fermented foods to each meal, such as:
- Yogurt (ideally without sugar—buy plain yogurt and add maple syrup)
- Fermented vegetables
Travel to Provence or Tuscany. When you’re feeling ready to return to a complete diet, travel to a place that takes food and eating seriously. You may discover—as many others have done—that you have no problem eating fresh bread and pasta and cheese and gelato. And thus, you may discover something that most Americans still view as revolutionary or even ridiculous: that the bugs in our microbiome—the ones that keep us alive—really don’t like eating pesticides, especially under high stress.
The Paleo Problem
Field studies at the University of Utah have shown that a human can gather enough wheat berries from a field in just two hours to supply enough nutrition for the entire day. So why wouldn’t early humans gather the easy-to-obtain grains from the grasslands as a mainstay of their diet? New findings suggest they did. The Utah studies suggest that about 3.4 million years ago, the hominin Australopithecus afarensis and other human relatives ate, on average, 40 percent grasses, which included gluten-rich barley and wheat. By 1.7 to 2 million years ago, early humans ate 35 percent grasses and some scavenged meat from grazing animals, while another nearby hominin, Paranthropus boisei, was eating 75 percent grasses, including wheat.
Jumping forward in time, there is also archeological evidence of flour made from wild cereal grains around 30,000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic era. Around 10,000 years ago, with the widespread rise of farming and agriculture during the Neolithic era, bread and cereals became seasonal dietary staples. So humans obviously have a lot of genetic experience eating wheat. We also know that the kinds of bugs we have in our microbiome naturally change with the foods of the season, so the idea that humans haven’t had time to properly adapt to wheat doesn’t make much sense.
The ancient wheat was also harder to digest. Alpha-gliadin is considered the indigestible toxic form of wheat that is linked to many of the gluten sensitivity symptoms. Yet when researchers compared the gliadin components of gluten from two ancient wheat varieties, Kamut and Graziella Ra, with modern varieties, the ancient wheats had total gliadin and alpha-gliadin levels that were almost twice as high as those of the modern wheat.
While studies do show that there has been an increase in celiac-based gluten intolerance in the second half of the 20th century, there is no evidence that this rise is due to an increase in the gluten content in wheat. In fact, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, the gluten content in wheat has been relatively stable since wheat processing began in the late 19th century.
While the Paleo diet has some benefits, it suffers from the problems of all fad diets—problems that the long history of Ayurveda helps to solve.
John Douillard DC, CAP, is a globally recognized leader in the fields of natural health, Ayurveda, and sports medicine. He directs LifeSpa, the 2013 Holistic Wellness Center of the year, in Boulder, Colorado, and is the creator of LifeSpa.com, the leading Ayurvedic health and wellness resource on the web, with five million views on YouTube. The former Director of Player Development and nutrition expert for the New Jersey Nets NBA team, he is a best-selling author of seven health books, including his latest, Eat Wheat: A Scientific and Clinically Proven Approach to Safely Bringing Wheat and Dairy Back into Your Diet, from which this article was adapted.