Dr Jess says: “Wheat is a complex topic in natural health. While people with coeliac disease are unable to tolerate any gluten (a protein that is found in grains including wheat, barley and rye and hidden in a lot of processed foods), there are a large number of other people who experience health symptoms when eating wheat, ranging from stomach problems like diarrhoea, constipation or bloating, through to eczema and brain fog. We call this non-coeliac wheat sensitivity. Symptoms worsen when people consume more wheat and they can have similar digestive and inflammatory changes to those with coeliac disease.
I do wonder how much of the symptoms are down to wheat alone, or if it is instead one or a combination of the factors we discuss in this article. Some patients can tolerate spelt, rye and ancient grain wheat, in the form of sourdough. My suspicion is that there are many different reactions occurring as a result of wheat, gluten, the processing and additives used and also the high amount of pesticides and the ways that wheat has been modified.
If your gut is inflamed, wheat can act as an irritant, while on other days, there is no reaction. I was surprised to find out how much better I felt when keeping wheat out of my diet (yet I can eat occasional organic sourdough spelt and rye bread – both of which contain gluten – without a reaction).
There are useful tests like the one from DNA Health that can show if you have a genetic tendency towards gluten intolerance, as a result of carrying the DQ2 or DQ8 genes. If you carry either of these genes you may wish to do a gluten-free trial for 30 days. You could also consider IgG blood testing for wheat or gluten sensitivity, or do a full coeliac testing panel if you want to rule out coeliac disease, or you could even try your own exclusion diet at home, to see what changes.”
Wheat and white flour in particular is highly processed and is inflammatory for our digestive systems. The way that wheat is produced has changed dramatically over the last 100 years, making it a grain that you may now wish to avoid, to improve overall health and wellbeing.
today’s wheat milling process removes the nutritious outer hull and wheatgerm
In the past, wheat was milled using stones to crush the wheat grain and separate it, which would inevitably leave some of the outer hull (bran) and the inner layer of the wheatgerm. In the 1870s, steel roller mills were invented and although they were much more efficient and were able to produce much larger quantities, they also produced a much more refined type of flour.
Modern wheat milling removes all of the nutritious bran, which is naturally high in fibre. It also removes the wheatgerm which contains healthy fatty acids, vitamins, such as thiamine and B6, and minerals, including magnesium and zinc.1
the resulting soft white flour is high in refined carbohydrate (sugar)
White flour is a simple starch (a chain of sugars) that breaks down into sugar within 20-30 minutes of being consumed. This puts it in the high GI (glycaemic index) category of food.
If, for example, you eat a single piece of white bread, which contains around 18g of carbohydrate,2 within half an hour, it becomes the equivalent of four teaspoons of sugar. It’s this fast breakdown into sugar that makes white flour create an inflammatory response in our body,3 which in turn makes us more susceptible to many diseases, including diabetes.
the wheat of yesterday is not the wheat of today
Ancient wheat varieties included Einkorn (a great source of lutein, zeaxanthin and ß-carotene 4), spring and emmer wheat (high in tocopherols 4). In the 1950s, wheat was modified into a strain of new semi-dwarf high yielding wheat that was easy to collect by machine and mill, but required higher use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Older, heritage kinds of wheat are shown to produce fewer inflammatory reactions and allergic responses in the body5. This type of much healthier, less inflammatory heritage flour is still available from companies such as Shipton Mill, and are a much healthier option.
today’s flour is chemically and genetically modified
Since the 1990s, hundreds of worldwide trials of the genetic modification of wheat have led to the unfortunate appearance of genetically modified wheat in our food supply (despite never being approved for safe food use6). Chemical pesticide levels in mass-produced wheat are often higher than the recommended level for safety7, which can result in toxic effects on human health8. Pesticide levels are much lower in organic food, including wheat.
modern wheat is very high in gluten
Modern wheat is made of 13% gluten. This gluten is much more reactive than ancient kinds of wheat, which have different (and potentially less damaging) gluten epitypes.9 Gluten-related disorders are increasing in incidence all over the world.10
gluten can damage the gut wall
Gluten increases the permeability of the gut wall (it becomes leakier) in everyone, not just people with coeliac disease.11 When the gut wall becomes leaky, it makes us more prone to immune system problems and autoimmune disease.13
gluten can disrupt the blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain from infection and disease
There appears to be a link between a sensitivity to wheat and gluten, and brain disorders like schizophrenia, which can be explained by damage to the blood/brain barrier13 – the barrier between our bloodstream and our nervous system that protects our brain. It seems to be that the same thing that can make our gut leaky can also make our blood/brain barrier leaky, leaving us more open to disease and brain problems.
Many people experience the following, when eating wheat and processed white flour:
- nasal congestion (a constant blocked or runny nose)
- skin conditions
- irritability and brain fog
Gluten and wheat can cause inflammation in people; even without coeliac disease14 and we can see inflammatory changes in the body, which can lead to symptoms like those above.
Why not try three weeks wheat-free and see if you feel better?
how to avoid modern wheat (even the hidden stuff)
- Eat rice noodles instead of pasta: Quick and easy to cook, rice noodles are a great wheat-free and tasty alternative to pasta. Here at The Natural Doctors, we eat them with homemade pesto, bolognese and in stir-fries.
- Choose gluten-free options: The growing number of gluten sensitivities means that many restaurants and shops now cater for gluten-free eaters and offer options on menus. Many supermarkets now have a gluten-free range of foods too.
- Avoid processed gluten-free foods that are high in sugar: While we love that there are now more gluten-free options available than ever, a number of these off-the-shelf products can be high in sugar and additives. Cooking at home is always the best possible way to keep your diet optimally healthy. Choose gluten-free grains like rice, corn, oats*, buckwheat, quinoa or lower gluten, older, less-reactive grains like ancient kinds of wheat, spelt and rye. *(Oats do not contain gluten, but often grow alongside wheat, so it can contain very low levels of gluten. This should not be a concern unless you suffer from coeliac disease.)
- Try rice flour: This can be used instead of wheat flour for thickening sauces and gravy, and as a substitute in some recipes.
- Buy organic, whole wheat flour, or ancient grain: If you are buying wheat flour, look out for ancient grain or whole wheat, organic varieties, instead of opting for plain or self-raising white. Some ancient grain flours are perfect like-for-like replacements for traditional flour and are perfect for baking with. Even better, choose whole wheat organic or seeded types of flour, which can be a natural source of additional dietary fibre (and they taste great, too)!
- Remember that alcohol can contain wheat too: Many beers are made from malted wheat or barley, so are naturally high in gluten. You can find gluten-free options now available in many pubs and supermarkets.
Q. I want to cut down wheat in my diet, but I will find it very restrictive to completely eliminate it. Is there a balance where I can mostly avoid eating wheat, but still have a little? Could I maybe eat it a few times a week, or are there better types to eat, and ones to avoid?
A. You could try making unleavened bread like chapatis and paratha using gram flour, which is made from chickpeas, so is naturally gluten and wheat-free. Organic, wholewheat wraps or pittas are another great way to get a bread fix, without the burden of as much refined wheat and you can swap out breakfast cereals for oat-based mueslis and granolas (just watch for the high sugar levels in some shop-bought ones).
More supermarkets are offering breads made from things like oats and ancient grains, so look out for those. Do try to avoid white flour, white bread and white pasta – always choose whole grain if you can and look for traditionally made sourdoughs. You can also try out our squidgy bread recipe, keto rolls or keto wraps which are wheat and grain-free.
As you get used to reducing wheat in your diet, it may be worth considering a trial to completely eliminate gluten for 30 days, to see if you can feel a difference. This will allow you to discover whether you need to make the change and go fully gluten-free.
If you do the trial, one of two things will happen: you will either find that you don’t feel much different, in which case you can stick to the above guidance for wheat. Or, you will feel a dramatic change that will help you make a decision to eliminate gluten. Do not replace gluten with processed, refined, high-sugar gluten-free alternatives, as these can also be harmful to your digestion. We like Artisan Bread Organic, the Good Grain Bakery and Seedful gluten-free bread.
- Nutrition facts for Wheat germ, crude, recommended daily values and analysis.
- Calories in White Bread
- Dickinson, Scott, A Hancock, Dale P, Petocz, Peter, Ceriello, Antonio, Brand-Miller, Jennie High–glycemic index carbohydrate increases nuclear factor-κB activation in mononuclear cells of young, lean healthy subjects Am J Clin Nutr 2008 10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1188 87 5 1188 1193
- Jaromír Lachman, Kateřina Hejtmánková, Zora Kotíková, Tocols and carotenoids of einkorn, emmer and spring wheat varieties: Selection for breeding and production Journal of Cereal Science, Volume 57, Issue 2, 2013, Pages 207-214 ISSN 0733-5210,
- Kucek, L.K., Veenstra, L.D., Amnuaycheewa, P. and Sorrells, M.E. (2015), A Grounded Guide to Gluten: How Modern Genotypes and Processing Impact Wheat Sensitivity COMPREHENSIVE REVIEWS IN FOOD SCIENCE AND FOOD SAFETY, 14: 285-302. https://doi.org/10.1111/1541-4337.12129
- Unapproved Monsanto GMO Wheat Found in Oregon
- G.O. Guler, Y.S. Cakmak, Z. Dagli, A. Aktumsek, H. Ozparlak, Organochlorine pesticide residues in wheat from Konya region, Turkey, Food and Chemical Toxicology, Volume 48, Issue 5, 2010, Pages 1218-1221, ISSN 0278-6915, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2010.02.013.
- Muhammad Atif Randhawa, Anwaar Ahmed, Muhammad Sameem Javed, Wheat Contaminants (Pesticides) and their Dissipation during Processing
- Phytochemical Profile and Nutraceutical Value of Old and Modern Common Wheat Cultivars Ed(s): Ronald Ross Watson, Victor R. Preedy, Sherma Zibadi, Wheat and Rice in Disease Prevention and Health, Academic Press, 2014, Pages 263-277, ISBN 9780124017160
- Hollon J, Puppa EL, Greenwald B, Goldberg E, Guerrerio A, Fasano A. Effect of gliadin on permeability of intestinal biopsy explants from celiac disease patients and patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivity Nutrients. 2015 Feb 27;7(3):1565-76. doi: 10.3390/nu7031565. PMID: 25734566; PMCID: PMC4377866.
- Lerner A, Matthias T. Changes in intestinal tight junction permeability associated with industrial food additives explain the rising incidence of autoimmune disease Autoimmun Rev. 2015 Jun;14(6):479-89. doi: 10.1016/j.autrev.2015.01.009. Epub 2015 Feb 9. PMID: 25676324.
- Severance EG, Gressitt KL, Alaedini A, Rohleder C, Enning F, Bumb JM, Müller JK, Schwarz E, Yolken RH, Leweke FM.IgG dynamics of dietary antigens point to cerebrospinal fluid barrier or flow dysfunction in first-episode schizophrenia Brain Behav Immun. 2015 Feb;44:148-58. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2014.09.009. Epub 2014 Sep 20. PMID: 25241021; PMCID: PMC4275312.
- Schuppan D, Pickert G, Ashfaq-Khan M, Zevallos V. Non-celiac wheat sensitivity: differential diagnosis, triggers and implications Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol. 2015 Jun;29(3):469-76. doi: 10.1016/j.bpg.2015.04.002. Epub 2015 May 8. PMID: 26060111.