Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wheat contains opiates. Really? REALLY???

I have been reading the book "Wheat Belly," by William Davis.  I have a lot of trouble reading sciency things written for non-sciency people because generally, well, they are often WRONG.  In trying to simplify the issues, author's often miss the mark and end up writing things that are dead wrong.  Given that, when I first read that wheat proteins (specifically the gluten family of proteins) were broken down into peptides that stimulate opioid receptors in the brain, I was all WHAT????  Naturally.  Aren't you?

What's an opioid and why am I freakin' out about it being in my food?

An opioid is a chemical that can elicit a response in the brain via the opioid receptor pathway.  We have lots of these "pathways" in our brains - some make us happy, some sad, some tired, some hungry, some painful, some cold, hot, angry, euphoric, etc.  For each feeling you have, you have a pathway set up to monitor that feeling.  To turn it on and off at the appropriate time. Each of these neural pathways are activated by a family of chemicals.  They have their own receptors or "locks" that they fit into which activate the pathway.  Imagine this:  the "key" is the opioid chemical and you have the key in your hand.  It fits into the "lock" which is the opioid receptor in your brain -- like the lock on your front door.  Once the door is open (or the pathway is activated), you walk down the "hallway" turning on light switches as you go.  Each light switch represents a part of the pathway that is being activated by that one action - the joining of key and lock (in this metaphor, you are "energy" being transmitted along the pathway, turning things on and off as you are programmed to do).  The end result is a brightly lit room which is "activated."  In this case, there are a plethora of possible outcomes of opioid pathway activation.  Among these are:
  • analgesia (you feel no pain)
  • antidepressive effects (you feel happy and if you're clinically depressed, your depression lifts)
  • euphoria
  • hyperactive behavior
  • physical dependence (once you experience life with the lights on, you don't want them off again)
Common opioids you may find in your daily life?  Morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, heroin, methadone -- amongst many, many others.

They are really physically addictive.  For heroin in particular, ONE EXPOSURE can lead to physical addiction.  They are bad news.

And they are in your food.

Opioids in food?  Surely you jest.

OK I will be honest with you.  You're not eating pure opioid chemicals in your bread.  It's the process of digesting it that is the issue here.  And of course, everyone does this (digesting) differently because we are all slightly different and unique snowflakes.  You know what gluten is, right?  That protein found in wheat endosperm?  It's there as a protein source for the growing wheat seedling along with tons of starch.  It actually exists in a complex with two gluten proteins, gliadin and glutelin, and starch.  I haven't read a ton on glutelin, but there certainly exists a whole body of literature on gliadins and what the body makes of them while digesting them.  But first things first.  Gluten is a protein found in wheat seeds.  Over the years, "we" (I use the term we to signify humans; not scientists, not laypeople, just US in general cause I'm damn straight not taking the blame as a scientist for this nonsense that our diet has become in the USA) have bred wheat plants to contain pretty high level of gluten.  Once food chemists realized that gluten makes things springy and elastic, it started to get added to many foods (bread being only one of HUNDREDS of foods on the market that contain gluten - just ask any Celiac).

So what does the body do with gluten?  The same thing it does with any protein - it gets digested into smaller and smaller units as it passes through the intestine.  These smaller units are called peptides.  Imagine gluten like a pearl necklace with each pearl representing the simplest unit of a protein, an amino acid (there wont be a test, bear with me here).  When you string together a few amino acids, you get a peptide.  When you make a whole necklace, either circular or just a long string, you get a protein.  Gluten is the protein, peptides are what you get when you cut up gluten in your digestive system.  These little pieces of protein, peptides, are the result of digestion of ANY protein in your body.  We call them "exorphins" when they come from protein digestion.  They are really small and can enter your bloodstream through conveniently-located blood vessels inside of your intestinal walls.  So you've got peptides/exorphins in your blood.

Don't be alarmed, it's normal.  What's really interesting is that some exorphin peptides LOOK just like keys that fit into certain locks.  Imagine, then, what would happen if we digested a protein into peptides that looked just like the key to the opioid receptor (lock)?  Whoa.  There you have it - that's exactly what happens when we digest gluten.  Specifically, when we digest gliadins, some of the resulting peptides fit into the lock which is the opioid receptor, making them OPIOIDS.

Wheat is addictive

Ask me, now, if I believe that this could really be true.  Just because these peptides LOOK like opioids, do I believe that wheat could have some of the same properties as morphine, heroin, codeine?

I absolutely do.

NO, they aren't akin to heroin.  I'm not an idiot, don't look at me like I'm crazy!

I've experienced wheat "addiction" if there is such a thing.  I just couldn't give up carbs (specifically wheat).  I just couldn't.  I could stop eating sweets all I wanted and I could damn HFCS to the eternal pits of hell, but I still wanted pasta, bread, crackers, cereal, etc. ALL.THE.TIME.  Ask my friends that have been with me through this nutritional journey.  Wendy?  Claudia?  Lesley?  You've heard me say it a million times, right?  Once I gave up wheat, I haven't even WANTED a grain or carby snack since.  I don't even want Quinoa.  I just don't want the carbs at all ever.  No lie, I swear!  BUT:  when you let a little bit of wheat in..............the "addiction" floods back.  I ate those gluten and wheat-containing sausages on Sunday night (see here) and Monday I spent the day thinking about how much my life sucked because I couldn't have some ice cream, bread, cookies, *enter other carby treat here.*  I white-knuckled it through the day/night and didn't cave and felt better for it by Tuesday, but wow.  Just wow.

I have one more thing to tell you and I hope everyone is listening to this because I don't want to say it since I've been railing against it from Day 1 of this journey.

Those Paleo people might be on to something -

- because milk proteins (casein) are digested into opioid-like peptides too.  It turns out that wheat and cow's milk - two things we really aren't evolved to properly process or digest, both produce these addictive peptides as byproducts of normal digestion.  Does everyone make these peptides?  Probably not as research into the link between mental health and nutrition shows.  Only a certain percentage of schizophrenics experience symptomatic relief from a gluten-free diet.  Is everyone that makes opioid peptides as sensitive to them as, obviously, I am?  Probably not.  Who knows.  

I am running the risk of becoming a fruitarian more and more each day.

Don't believe me?  Read this peer-reviewed article on how the effects of gliadin peptides exacerbate psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia.  Then be a good scientist and follow the references within:

Kalaydjian AE, et al 2005. The gluten connection: the association between schizophrenia and celiac disease, Acta Psychiatr Scand 2006: 113: 82–90.

For a great layman's read, see "Wheat Belly" by William Davis, available here


  1. As a self-proclaimed "carbivore" I am not at all surprised by this but now I'm left with the aftermath of learning it. I want, very much, to clean up my eating because I honestly think I have very similar issues to yours in regards to certain food sensitivities. But the addicted side of me kind of wants to die at the thought of going gluten-free or even approaching it. Hmmm. This is going to require some thought. Love your blog, keep it up!

    1. Nic, I literally could have written your reply a year ago. I got started on this crazy journey when I was told that I had high insulin. I cut out sugar and HFCS pretty easily since I was loathe to be "that fat chick that ate her way to diabetes." So willpower alone got me there. But I didn't really lose any weight? HUH? I stopped eating ICE CREAM and didn't lose weight? Something ain't right. I think I was addicted to all of the crazy stuff that the food industry is putting in our food.

      We can take this to email if you want, I'm there any time.

  2. Well written and excellent explaination. I'm about 1/2 through Wheat Belly. It's hard to read - simply because I don't want it to be true but I find myself nodding my head.

    Once you get through that first week or so, you really don't want it back in your diet. You cringe when you find yourself in a social situation where it's impolite to say no.

    I no longer throw the croutons off my salad because I'm "trying to be good". I honestly do not want them. Passing up the bread bowl or opting for a salad instead of a plate of pasta isn't a challenge. I wish it hadn't taken me this long to get to this point, but now that I'm here, I never want to go back.

    1. I totally agree! Last night we were going out to eat and my options were:

      Panera, Applebees, Cheeburger, Carrabbas, Outback, and any other big chain places. I picked Chipotle because I could get a burrito bowl with meat, beans, veg, guac, etc and it is gluten-free (I checked). I didn't even WANT the burrito wrap or even my beloved Panera!

  3. Yes, yes, yes! I am a sugar-aholic! I just ate a giant handful of my kid's Kix cereal b/c we don't have any "grownup" carbs in the house, and I am having a carb craving attack. I did stop myself from bringing the whole box into the living room, and for that I am proud! I haven't paid close enough attention to see if it's just wheat or any carb that makes me crazy. But not only do I get addicted, they make me so tired. When I went completely carb free for a month, I was astounded at my energy level. Honestly, it was a bit *too* much! I take care of toddlers all day, so I didn't know what to do with all that energy. I can't leave, and jog. I can't throw myself into a hardcore mental-energy task. So I stewed, which wasn't that cool. Since then, I've maintained a low level of carbs in my diet, and not gotten the crazy energy again. But it's so weird how tired I am when I eat carbs. And how it took me 36 years to figure it out!


    1. I'm often stunned at how uneducated we are, as Americans, about nutrition. I didn't realize until very recently (NAIVE I KNOW!) that the gov't tells us what they need us to know, not what is right or truthful.