What was puzzling me is that I was not simply reacting to gluten in wheat.
In fact, I had reactions also to wheat starch, which is commonly used in gluten-free breads. However, I knew that gluten was an issue, because gluten in isolation (without the other components of wheat, like in seitan) was causing me discomfort.
So what else is in wheat? As we said, starches. And also proteins/enzymes other than gluten. As I found out in my search, some of these proteins/enzymes -called ATI (amylase tripsin inhibitors)– are engineered by plants to prevent animals, like us, to digest the starches contained in their seeds (like wheat berries). I believe ATIs and changes to them in modern wheat varieties are part of this chain reaction that has led me and other people to develop wheat intolerance*. ATI may play a role in a problem that is being observed in a growing number of people: abnormal digestion of a type of wheat starches, fructans.
*I think we should talk of “wheat intolerance” rather than “gluten sensitivity”, because the first is a broader term that may better capture all the (many) mechanisms at play, which include sensitivity to several wheat components, including gluten and fructans.
Wheat and rye are rich of a type of fructose molecules, fructans, which are indigestible by us humans. Fructans are a wide class of molecules found in most plants. Not all plants though have high concentrations of fructans, and types of fructans vary considerably between different species of plants.
Fructans together with galactans -another indigestible type of sugars present in legumes– have become the focus of a now popular diet called FODMAPs. FODMAPs diet has been devised by Monash University in Australia to help treat symptoms of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). It consists of a long list of foods high in fructans that should be avoided or strictly limited. Among them, several fruits and vegetables that we easily have access to, legumes, wheat and rye. A vegetarian will be in big trouble on a FODMAPs diet and, not only that.
If FODMAPs diet becomes the golden standard treatment for the 14% of the global population with IBS symptoms, which is, 1 billion people, we will be in big, big, trouble. Both environmentally and economically.
Among the foods to exclude we find: asparagus, artichokes, onions(all), leek bulb, garlic, legumes/pulses, sugar snap peas, onion and garlic salts, beetroot, savoy cabbage, celery, sweet corn, apples, pears, mango, nashi pears, watermelon, nectarines, peaches, plums, milk, soft cheeses, pulses, legumes, wheat, rye.
These are all foods that we have eaten for millennia and, if 14% of us (and up to 25% of Northern Europeans) was having problems with them, I don’t think these food items would ever have become so central in our agriculture and livestock rearing. We would have left the plants grow wild and picked them occasionally and used the animals only for meat. But this is not how it went. So, before excluding large parts of our food supplies, and actually some of the most environmentally sound and economically smart food choices, we should, and I sure did, ask ourselves why. What has changed? How can we change it back?
Why is it that so many people are better off avoiding foods high in fructans and galactans? And how is this related to the current epidemics of gluten sensitivity?
IBS is a condition that affects the large intestine (bowel) -and sometimes the small intestine (small bowel)- and it is characterized of one or more of the following symptoms: cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, change in bowel habits (diarrhea and/or constipation). IBS is truly an umbrella diagnosis and includes many different problems affecting the large and/or the small intestine. Most people with gluten sensitivity could be classified indeed as IBS patients.
And here we get to the crux of the issue. What is going on with our digestive system that wasn’t going on before?
What does this mean? That part of us with recurrent stomach problems may have too many bacteria growing in the small intestine, where bacteria should not be too many (contrary to the large intestine).
There is also, most likely, something called dysbiosis going on. This means the taking over of some bacteria over others, which can become as severe to cause ruptures, cancer, and death.
In dysbiosis, the usual balance between the million populations of bacteria that have adapted to our gut through the millennia is disrupted. Some bacteria that should be there are simply not there, or are too few, and some other bacteria that should be present only in moderation have taken over and make big feasts with the food we give them -with unpleasant consequences for us, like in the case of IBS.
And here we can go back to our beloved wheat.
Not all fructans are the same. In wheat and rye we find mostly a type of fructan that is not common in other plants. It is called levan (sounding like levain, sourdough, which is actually a good way to pre-digest fructans).
Anyway, levan is the class of fructans we find most in wheat and rye. They have a different molecular structure compared to the most common other class of fructans, inulin -found in many vegetables and fruits- and it is reasonable to think that they are different as compared to other fructans also in terms of the impact on our bodies when we ingest them.
As one can find on up-to-date agronomy literature (Joran Verspreet, from Belgium, has written a whole thesis on the topic and published several valuable papers on wheat/rye fructans), levans are complex branched fructans that help wheat to grow and fully develop and protect the plant from unfavorable conditions, like cold weather and poor water supply.
Levan concentration in the bulk, seed and leaves changes depending on the stage of plant maturation. It is maximum when the wheat berry is formed but not yet ripe.
This does ring a bell to me… maybe increased levan levels in our wheat may have arised because of the modern practice of harvesting wheat early to reduce costs?
And how about the fact that nowadays wheat grows in any weather condition? Tolerating extreme cold as well as lack of water?
It is likely that the most modern crops are also those with the highest concentrations of branched fructans, those that make wheat more resistant.
Right, so what?
And how does this relate to an unbalanced gut flora and to too many nasty and hungry gut bacteria?
Well, when people say that we have not evolved to eat wheat, they probably have not read any literature about the gut microbiota.
Bacteria have in fact a much shorter life cycle than us humans and, since when cereals have become a staple food, about 12,000 years ago, there has been time for billions of changes in the bacteria we host. So that:
instead of human evolution we should truly talk in terms of hosted bacteria evolution.
To help digest wheat starches (and get lots of food to chew on in return) selected bacteria strains have populated our intestine. In the case of levan fructans, various strains of bacteroides are the elected bacteria. Bacteroides just love wheat and rye levan. And they can degrade the big polymers of molecules into smaller peptides. This was one of the many adaptations our bodies underwent when starting to eat more wheat.
Bacteroids growth is generally regulated by other hosted bacteria, such as lactobacilli. There we can think that if lactobacilli are reduced, maybe due to some antibioticc treatment, there will be overgrowth of certain strains of bacteroids over others strains of bacteria, and this may contribute to problems with the digestion of wheat. But the bacteria strains involved are likely to be more and the mechanisms much more complicated than this.
Recently a link was found between overgrowth of a specific bacteroide, immune response and gluten toxicity.
In summary, wheat fructans and ATIs in wheat may play a role in determining if gluten will be perceived as toxic or not by our bodies. For instance by feeding specific strains of gut bacteria that influence the immune response to gluten. Moreover, factors completely unrelated to wheat, like the selection of certain bacteria over others due to overall diet or antibiotic consumption or other environmental threats (example: chemicals in food), can also impact on the reaction to wheat and gluten.
So stay tuned and please, do let me know about your own experience of IBS or gluten sensitivity/wheat intolerance. And thanks a lot for reading and sharing! And always keep bread-ing! There are plenty of good reasons to.