After sifting through voluminous amounts of research, I believe I came up with the answer and here it is. In the 1960s, agricultural scientists decided to tinker with the traditional wheat kernel to grow more of this grain per acre and shorten time from planting to harvest. Experiments with hybridization, inorganic fertilizers and modern pesticides gave birth to the high-yield semi-dwarf strain of wheat. Like many alterations in our natural food supply, it was all about the money; corporations selling baked goods wanted to distribute them more quickly and on a more massive scale. This new species of wheat was the "open sesame" for their dream come true.
A glut of gluten turned the tide
The new short-stalk wheat species was bred to yield ten times more per acre than its humble predecessor. Traditional "ancient" strains of wheat naturally contained lower gluten levels and did not typically upset the digestive systems of the general population. This is the type of wheat consumed for thousands of years without much ado. As a result of genetic manipulations, this purposely designed modern high-yield grain ended up a mere nutritional shadow of its robust ancestor grain and gluten content in the new wheat skyrocketed.
I can only imagine the high fives making their rounds in corporate halls of the baking industry. Richer gluten content in this mutant grain created soft, puffy loaves of bread--and was sure to stimulate profits by leaps and bounds. CEOs must surely have envisioned millions of dollars dancing around on a vast industrial magnitude.
Gluten is the "gluey" protein molecule in wheat that gives bread its chewy texture. In the 1970s and 1980s, the high gluten content in the modern semi-dwarf high yield wheat began challenging the human digestive system, and gluten allergies exploded in the aftermath. This reminds me of the old TV commercial slogan in the '70s: It's not nice to fool mother nature!
Lectins: partners in crime
To further complicate the issue, along with gluten comes a type of protein known as a lectin and the higher gluten content, the higher content of lectins. (Let's say they sort of hang out together). Lectins are undigestible defensive protein compounds that plants use to protect themselves against predators and thus ensure propagation of the species. Since they can't "run away" from an enemy, seeds and grains produce these lectins to stop invaders in their tracks. For instance, lectins act as a gut irritant. The ensuing stomach ache works to remind the animal who ate the plant to think twice about ingesting it again. Lectins also serve to fight off foreign invaders like mold and parasites. They bind to their sugar molecules before they have a chance to damage the plant.
In the world of lectins, there are the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. There are health-promoting lectins and health-damaging ones. "Good lectins" play useful roles in the body-- including cell to cell adherence, inflammatory modulation, and programmed cell death (apoptosis).
Leaky gut, inflammatory bowel disease, and autoimmune disorders
Health-damaging lectins include the powerful wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) leptin. When lectins get into your body, they target sugar molecules. Since the digestive system is lined with sugar-containing cells that help you break down food, when these types of lectins pass through your digestive system, they can potentially bind to the cells lining your intestines. The body looks upon this as an attack and releases inflammatory chemicals. This causes internal body inflammation and can cause symptoms ranging from mild irritation to digestive upset to more serious conditions such as leaky gut syndrome, Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and even celiac disease.
This inflammatory action can alter gut permeability, leading to a condition called leaky gut syndrome. Once the gut wall has been compromised, the "leaky gut" allows the migration of these leptins into the bloodstream where they can subsequently bind to any tissue in the body, including the thyroid, pancreas, and joint collagen. The adherence of lectins to tissue can alter the function of that particular tissue and cause the body think its a foreign entity. The immune system then sends white blood cells (antibodies) to attack the lectin-bound tissue and destroy it. This is what provokes an autoimmune response and has been linked to autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
Lectins can attach themselves to Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) receptor sites, triggering an autoimmune response to the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) receptors on the thyroid, damaging this vital yet sensitive organ. Lectin damage has also been linked to disorders of the kidney and also the pancreas, as in diabetes (both type 1 and type 2).
Gluten and mental illness
Two main protein fractions of gluten are the gliadins and glutenins. The food industry has especially monkeyed with gliadins, so they will mix better in breads and other flour-based commodities. In doing so, they have disturbed their native properties and--in concert with leptins--have helped produce a multitude of adverse symptoms attributed to gluten sensitivity.
According to Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly: "Gliadin [today] is different from the gliadin of, say, 1960, by several amino acids, part of the genetic transformation of wheat introduced to increase yield-per-acre. Gliadin is degraded to a collection of polypeptides called exorphins in the gastrointestinal tract. Exorphins cross the blood-brain barrier and bind to opiate-receptors to induce appetite, as well as behavioral changes, such as...outbursts and inattention in children with ADHD and autism, hearing voices and social detachment in schizophrenics, and the mania of bipolar illness."
Back in the day (before wheat was engineered for mass production) our ancestors ate bread and were just fine. However, we are now exposed to wheat everywhere we turn. Perhaps one reason gluten sensitivity is on the rise is because of the prevalence of wheat-containing products in our food supply. It's estimated that the average American adult eats a staggering 134 pounds of flour per year, not to mention sources of "hidden wheat."
According to Food Allergy Research & Information, "Wheat has been found in some brands of ice cream, marinara sauce, play dough, potato chips, rice cakes, turkey patties and hot dogs.Wheat also may be found in ale, baking mixes, baked products, batter-fried foods, beer, breaded foods, breakfast cereals, candy, crackers, processed meats, salad dressings, sauces, soups, ...and soy sauce."
To say we're overwhelmed with wheat would be a dietary understatement. Gluten-free product sales are up and wheat product sales are down, and the corporate halls are shaking. However, perhaps it's time to evaluate our diets and seek even BETTER alternatives!
Next Week's Blog
Stay tuned for my next blog, which will reveal the connection of modern hybridized wheat to insulin resistance and obesity. I will also share information about a surprising type of wheat that many gluten-sensitive people can tolerate.