Wheat: a hard drug

Why do we crave muffins, bagels, cheese croissants, and buttered baguettes? According to Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly, we want these foods because wheat acts on our brains the same way addictive drugs do. Davis based his thesis on the results of several studies that looked at the relation between wheat and schizophrenia and that between wheat and autism, and the effect of wheat proteins on lab rats.


The first attempt to study the effect of wheat on the mind came right after World War II. Dr. F. Curtis Dohan observed that fewer European and North American schizophrenics were hospitalized during the war than after the war. He hypothesized that the decrease in wheat consumption during the war had something to do with it. Almost a decade later, Dohan and a team of researchers removed all wheat from the diet of a group of schizophrenia patients and then reintroduced it a month later. The team observed the behaviours of the schizophrenia before, during, and after the wheat removal and reintroduction. They found that the patients exhibited behaviour more symptomatic of schizophrenia (delusions, hallucinations, disconnection from reality) when they ate wheat than when they didn’t.


Years later, another researcher, Dr. Christine Zioudrou, decided to test the effect of a particular wheat protein—gluten—on rats. Zioudrou and her team exposed gluten to stomach enzymes and digestive juices and gave the proteins to the rats. When they did this, they noticed something strange in the brains of the lab rats.


The parts that made up the gluten seemed to float across the blood-brain barrier. In the central nervous system, the blood-brain barrier shields brain fluids from the circulating blood outside. In particular, it protects the brain from other molecules drifting in circulating blood.


When the wheat components crossed the barrier, they clung to receptors in the brain, particularly opioid receptors. (These receptors deal with morphine, heroin, and other opiates.) My psychology textbook tells me that cell receptors are molecules outside cells that receive signals and deliver messages. When a chemical binds with a cell receptor it can order the cell to open its gates, to multiply, or to die. In this case, the effect of the stray wheat components was to cause the sensation of pleasure.


For this reason, Davis dubs wheat an appetite stimulant. He says that the chemical components of wheat have changed over the years. Nowadays, whether it’s wheat from a cheese Danish or wheat from a whole grain wrap, it’s still bad for you.


After watching several of his own patients cut out wheat and  then experience better moods, fewer mood swings, fewer cravings, better concentration, diminished rates of diabetes, dropped blood pressure, and dramatic weight loss, Davis proposes the elimination of wheat from our diets.


Followers of the “no carbs” diet might scoff at this. They’ve been doing this all along, some with good results and some with no change. Others consider the no-wheat rule a little far-fetched. After all, what about the minerals, vitamins, and (good) fats in wheat?


Davis’s book, Wheat Belly, alleges the whole gamut of nutritional downsides of wheat, including excess fat, blood sugar spiking, and glycation (trust me, it’s not good). But as with all natural foods, most people believe that eating wheat in moderation should not have adverse effects on their bodies, and Davis admits that some people did not experience the withdrawal symptoms and final relief when they abstained from eating wheat.


Wheat Belly is less than a year old. And the field of nutrition, it turns out, is only about 200 years old. Whether or not you feel like forgoing wheat, there’s still a lot to learn about what foods our bodies want and need—or should avoid.

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