Gluten

At this moment, there appears to be a “gluten-free” craze or fad.

By now, you all know that I recommend a gluten-free lifestyle. But, I advocate learning the reasons behind elimination first.

Imagine if, in 1949, when doctors were recommending cigarettes, that I came out of nowhere and just said “stop doing what your doctor tells you – it’s bad for you!”

Instead of just hoping that people will go against “conventional wisdom” to improve their health, I’d rather provide some facts about gluten.

First, let’s look at the actual plant that has the most gluten – wheat. The plant in the bottom of the picture is wild-grown wheat, while the top plant is commercially grown wheat.
Wheat
This picture is slightly deceiving because the “ancient einkorn wheat” is actually a modern day variation of wheat grown in the wild. Originally, the stem would continue even further and there would be far less seeds. But, even in this picture, you can see that the output (the size and amount of protective “hairs”) of the plant has changed.

While scientists tinkered with the genetics of the plant to increase profits, they also increased the protein content immensely. This was considered an added benefit but, unfortunately, no testing was done on human tolerance.

As acetaminophen (Tylonel) was developed, it had to be researched mechanistically, tested on animals, and finally on humans, before each generation of the product could be sold in stores. This was never done with wheat.

Next, let’s consider the role wheat played historically. For the last 10,000 years, grains helped humans develop villages, cities, and countries, allowing us to leave behind 2.6 million years of hunting and gathering.

Imagine life as a hunter-gatherer – traveling around in groups, moving your “home”, and collecting food.

Would it make sense to spend hours every day picking tiny seeds off a plant, that would then have to be soaked, sprouted, and ground to make one thin cracker? Or would it make sense to throw a spear into a herd of antelope and provide enough food for weeks?

Would you rather search for days to find a few grasses of wheat? Or would time be better spent picking berries and plucking leaves (requiring no preparation) as you travel?

Wheat, and other grains and seeds, would be stored for a time of famine…when a hunt was unsuccessful or in winter when plants were scarce.

Now we know the role wheat played historically and how the plant changed through recent genetic hybridization. But, what about the actual affects gluten has on humans?

It is predicted that 1% of the world population has celiac disease, an overt allergy to gluten, while about 10% report having “non-celiac gluten sensitivity”.

Gluten sensitivity can result in over 250 symptoms, including joint pain, dry skin, or indigestion.

There is no test for “gluten sensitivity”, as there is with celiac disease. The only way to discover sensitivity is to completely remove gluten from the diet and reintroduce after a few months. Finally, one microgram of gluten can change the gut chemistry for up to 6 months – therefore, an accidental exposure, or short-term elimination, may provide invalid results.

I don’t want to bore you by exploring every issue involved with gluten, so I’ll just mention the two most compelling facts:

Gliadin, one of two proteins that make up gluten, breaks down to polypeptides. These are small enough to travel through the gut lining, into the blood, and cross the blood-brain barrier. At this point, they bind to opiate-receptor sites, producing euphoria, similar to a tiny dose of morphine or heroin. Studies show that gluten stimulates appetite so much, through the reward/pleasure centers of the brain, that individuals eating gluten consume an extra 400 calories a day.

Finally, transglutaminase is the enzyme in that breaks down gluten. The more gluten one eats, the more transglutaminase their body must produce. The issue here is that transglutaminase has the ability to affect every cell in the body. This is one reason gluten sensitivity can manifest in hundreds of different symptoms. The literature shows that high levels of transglutaminase are present in individuals with neurological diseases such as Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia.

I could continue but I don’t want to make this post too dry or sound like I’m trying to make gluten into some boogey-man.

The takeaway points are:

We have genetically-altered the wheat plant to contain far more gluten than it should.

Humans are not meant to consume as much gluten as we have in the last 50 years.

Gluten has the potential to affect nearly every function within the body.

Considering these facts, it is no surprise that there is a “gluten-free” craze at this moment. As more people eliminate gluten from their diets, they discover that it was the cause of many different health issues, ranging from fat-gain to Type II diabetes to anxiety.

And with that, you know the risks of over-consuming gluten, and the benefits of opting for more nutritional foods.

The science is out there – why not give it a try and see if removing gluten from your diet for a few months improves your life in any way? What will you have to lose (besides a few pizza nights or conveniently packaged snack bars)?

Insulin Resistance

Two phrases I’ve used quite a lot, and never fully explained, are “insulin resistance” and “insulin sensitivity”. If you know what these terms mean, and how to alter them, you can drastically improve your metabolism, and by extension, your health.

Perhaps you’ve heard the term insulin resistance before as it is commonly understood as a part of diabetes. This is a rather limited view of a complex process.

Whenever food is consumed, the pancreas releases insulin to notify the cells of the body to absorb and store nutrients. This process is particularly active whenever sugars are consumed because they must be used immediately or stored to prevent their toxic characteristics from damaging the body. However, if glycogen stores are already full, cells become resistant to this insulin, meaning they can’t absorb more, and the sugars ends up flooding the bloodstream. This starts a dangerous cycle where the pancreas continues to produce more insulin in an attempt to clear the sugars from the bloodstream and, eventually, the sugars are forced into fat storage.

An important detail to note is that, for average people, fat accumulation in the body is not attributable to consumption of dietary fat, but rather the overconsumption of carbohydrates that are all broken down into sugars.

This process of insulin release is repeated until the cells in the body cannot utilize fat as energy and the entire metabolic system becomes dependent on constant sugar feedings or insulin injections…also known as Type II diabetes.

During this process, the arteries harden from the inflammatory and toxic nature of sugars, causing atherosclerosis. Nerve damage can ensue, leading to blindness. Also, the cells become resistant to amino acids so the muscles can’t even use protein.

Some symptoms of insulin resistance include:

  • An energy crash, feeling of low-blood sugar, brain-fog, or fatigue within a few hours of consuming a large carb meal.
  • Increased hunger and sugar cravings.
  • Weight accumulation, particularly around the midsection and hips.
  • Elevated triglycerides, blood pressure, and blood sugar.

Insulin and carbs are not inherently bad. They both serve an important purpose of storing energy for intense activity or times of stress and famine. However, it is estimated that for the first 200,000 years of our existence, humans consumed about 80 grams of carbs a day (varying by location). These carb were in the form of tough, fibrous vegetables and roots. The insulin release would be so minor that the cells of the body would stay primed to receive glucose.

Insulin sensitivity is the exact opposite of insulin resistance. Insulin sensitivity suggests that the muscles are prepared to absorb glucose from the bloodstream with the aid of insulin.

I will list the most effective ways of promoting insulin sensitivity:

  • Moderating carb intake based on activity level.
  • Short periods of fasting where the body is encouraged to use fat as energy and break sugar dependence.
  • Consuming nutritious carbs such as fruits and vegetables that also contain fiber, mitigating insulin release.
  • Eating enough fat with every meal to blunt insulin secretion.
  • High-intensity interval training during which the body can only use glycogen as fuel.
  • Weight-lifting and other forms of exercise that place a demand upon the muscles and trains the metabolism to partition nutrients.

To put these tactics into a real-world context, I will explain my approach to maintaining insulin sensitivity:

On days I don’t work out, I limit my carb intake to a couple pieces of fruit and fibrous carbs. On my training days, I consume a large carb meal within 30 minutes of my workout to replenish glycogen stores.

On Friday, I have my last meal around 8 PM. On Saturday, around 11 AM, I walk to a steep hill where I do 10 to 15 sprint intervals in a fasted state. I walk home, stretch, shower, and have breakfast about an hour after my workout. In all, I fast about 16 hours. I’ll discuss fasting in another post because it can be a very effective, but potentially risky, method of improving health.

There are many other factors that can contribute to insulin resistance including vitamin D deficiency, heightened cortisol, highly acidic diets (building meals around grains instead of vegetables), consumption of trans-fats and oxidized poly-fats, and omega-3 deficiency.

Some studies suggest high-fat diets are a leading cause of insulin resistance but these studies merely replaced each gram of carbs with a gram of fat, resulting in an enormous calorie excess due to the fact that fats have 9 calories per gram and carbs only have 4. The most reliable study I have come across shows that after 12 weeks of replacing grains and dairy with vegetables and fruits, a type 2 diabetes diagnosis was completely reversed…meaning the body became insulin sensitive again.

So, if you experience sugar cravings or a blood sugar crash after eating, maybe try eating lower carb on the days you aren’t as active. Also, try to substitute nutritious carbs, such as vegetables and fruits, for less nutritious foods such as soda and snack bars filled with sugars and grains. Finally, throw in a tough workout every few days to create a demand within the muscles for any carbs you consume.

If you’d like me to recommend a more specific carb intake for your activity level, let me know!