The Inconvenient Truth about Wheat

Wheat has contributed greatly to the advancement of mankind. It is one of the crops that transformed our ancestors from hunter-gathers into farmers. It provided a dependable food supply that has made life easier and provided more free time for other pursues such as creating textile, pottery, woodworking, and making tools.[1] Wheat has continued to be an important food supply.

I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A few years back an old building in Minneapolis was converted into a museum, The Mill City Museum. Upon touring this museum, I discovered that the initial growth of Minneapolis was largely fueled by the Milling industry. Minneapolis, through innovations in milling techniques, became a world-leading center of flour production, earning the name “Mill City”.[2] In 1856, Minneapolis Milling Company was founded using the St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi River to power the mills.  This company became General Mills, Inc, which now markets many well known brands including Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Cheerios and Lucky Charms.[3]

One of the things I learned when touring the museum was that the demand for flour was so great that, in the beginning, sale of flour was only limited by the amount they could produce. For much of history this is what limited the amount of flour consumed, and it was through technical advancement that production was increased. For example, in 1873, Edmund La Croix and George T. Smith, both in Minneapolis, patented middlings purifiers that separated the dust, bran, middlings, and flour more completely by blowing air through screens so meshed as to sort the different particles. [4] As advancements were made the production of flour increased:

  • Between 1763 and 1766, Philadelphia exported 350,000 barrels of flour, mostly to the West Indies. 
  • Minneapolis flour shipments rose from 1 million to 5 million barrels between 1876 and 1884.        
  • Minneapolis flour shipments rose from 5 million to 10 million barrels between 1884 and 1894.
  • Between 1889 and 1899, wheat exports rose from 46 million to 139 million bushels.

Flour consumption has increased dramatically in the last 100 years and has remained high. In 1990, the per capita consumption of flour is estimated at 135 pounds.[5]

So how does all this related to health you ask…

I think it is important to understand the history of wheat production and consumption, because now flour is ubiquitous. Flour is in a huge percentage of the products in the super market, and the history of it becoming a huge part of our diets predates most people’s lives. We have never known a time in which flour was not a huge part of our diets. It feels to us like flour has always been a huge part of the human diet, which is NOT TRUE. 

Flour is in many food products and eaten by millions of people every day. Which is why questioning the safety of eating it feels absurd. However, for many people eliminating of gluten from their diet may be the greatest opportunity to improve their health.

Wheat flour is the primary grain product consumed in the United States. Wheat contains gluten. Gluten is a mixture of proteins, including gliadins and glutelins.[6] For many people gluten causes an autoimmune reaction. The result of this autoimmune reaction is that the villi in their small intestine are damaged. Intestinal villi are finger-like projections that line the length of the small intestine and are critical to proper of absorption or nutrients. Immune reactions caused by exposure to gluten, cause these intestinal villi to atrophy.[7]

Checkout this video: Digestive System

Checkout this video: Small Intestine

 It would be logical to think that a person that is sensitive to gluten would have stomach problems and some people do have stomach problems such as the following:

  • Intermittent diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating

However, some people who are sensitive to gluten have no gastrointestinal symptoms at all. [8] This is why a person that does not have digestion problems CAN NOT rule out the possibility of gluten affecting their health. For a person that is sensitive to gluten, their small intestine becomes increasingly compromised over time. Resulting is their small intestine being less effective in absorbing nutrients. The following diagram shows the progression of this damage[9]:

When a people who is sensitive to gluten eats a diet that contains gluten, the small intestine becomes inflamed. The little black dots in the diagram above represent lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell. This inflammation of the small intestine leads to disruption of the structure and function of the small bowel’s mucosal lining. The diagram above shows the Marsh classification of the stages of progression of the affects of gluten intolerance on the small intestine. The small intestine is moderately inflamed in the beginning stages, in the later stages the intestine is more inflamed, and in the most advance stages the villi atrophy. The following picture is a microscopic view of tissue samples taken from the small intestine biopsies. The picture on the left are normal villi. The picture on the right, is tissue from a person villi that have atrophied[10]:

The inflammation and shrinking of the villi impairs the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, minerals and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K from food.[11] This is one of the main reasons gluten can mess with a person’s health in many ways.  However, it is NOT the only reason gluten can mess with a person’s health. The other reason is that gluten intolerance often causes hypothyroidism.

After writing the blog about hypothyroidism, Check your thyroid using a Thermometer, I went out and bought the book Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms?. What I discovered floored me.  Gluten intolerance may be responsible for hypothyroidism in Americans 90% of the time!!! [12]

In the United States, autoimmune disease accounts for approximately 90 percent of adult hypothyroidism, mostly due to Hashimoto disease; and numerous studies show a strong link between gluten intolerance and Hashimoto disease:[13]

Hashimoto disease was the first disease to be recognized as an autoimmune disease.[14] It was first described by the Japanese specialist Dr. Hashimoto Hakaru in Germany in 1912. An autoimmune disease is a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks substances and tissues that are normally present in the body. In the case of Hashimoto’s disease the thyroid gland is gradually destroyed by the body’s immune system. [15]

As it turns out, the molecular structure of gluten so closely resembles that of a the thyroid gland, the problem may by one of mistaken identity. The following is a quote from Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms? concerning how gluten intolerance leads to hypothyroidism[16]:

if a person with a gluten intolerance or celiac disease eats gluten regularly, her immune system is kept on a constant red alert, toiling virtually nonstop. Here’s how it sets the stage for Hashimoto’s: When immune antibodies tag gluten for removal, they stimulate the production of antibodies against the thyroid gland as well (again because they are both so similar in structure). In other words, every time gluten is ingested, the immune system launches an attack not only against gluten but also on the thyroid gland. What’s worse, the immune response can last up to six months each time its ingested.

In this way gluten can cause all of the symptoms of hypothyroidism.

Could gluten be affecting your health?

The answer is DEFINITELY. In fact it may be affecting your life more than you imagined possible. Eliminating gluten from your diet may enable you to be happier, to have more energy, to feel better and to look better than you imagined possible. The likelihood that you have some level of sensitivity to gluten is high. It’s estimated 43 percent of Americans are genetically predisposed to celiac disease, and 81 percent  are predisposed to gluten intolerance. [17] There are many many symptoms of gluten intolerance, however, the symptoms vary greatly from person to person. Plus the gluten intolerance is not easily screened for. Which is likely the reason it so under diagnosed. According to WedMD Health News, only 5% of patients are correctly diagnosed with gluten intolerance. A new study shows that the criteria used to diagnose the disorder may be too stringent, leaving many people undiagnosed and untreated.[18]

A genetic test can be performed to look for the genes associated with gluten intolerance. Tests can be performed to look for the following antibodies:

  • Gliadin, a protein in gluten
  • Transglutaminase, an enzyme in the intestines
  • Endomysium, a muscle sheath

Also a test for thyroid peroxidase antibodies (TPO Ab) can be performed to look for the antibodies associated with the Hashimoto Hypothyroidism. [19] There are many other tests that are utilized as well.

However, trying to be diagnosed through these means can be a frustrating, fruitless path. First of all you have to find a doctor to perform the tests, and the results need to be interpreted appropriately. A lot of doctor will resist ordering these tests and will not have enough experience to interpret the results appropriately. “An astounding 95% of celiacs are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions; 10 years is the average time [from time medical help is first sought] it takes for someone to be correctly diagnosed.”[20]

So…what does a person do?

If you suspect that you could have a gluten intolerance and/or suspect that you have hypothyroidism, there is a simple test that you perform at home. It is called the Elimination/Provocation Diet. For a minimum of two weeks, but ideally three weeks or more, you eliminate the following foods from your diet:

  • Gluten
  • Dairy
  • Eggs
  • Corn
  • Soy
  • Yeast

These are the most common problem foods.  You must be strict, do not cheat!!! Then you introduce each food into your diet, one at a time. Wait at least 72 hours reintroducing the next food. Keep a journey during this time to track your symptoms. Some common reactions to a food you cannot tolerate are the following:

  • skin eruptions, eczema, acne
  • fatigue
  • joint pain
  • digestive complaints, such as indigestion, bloating, gas, heart burn, constipation, and diarrhea
  • lung or nasal congestion
  • anxiety
  • moodiness or irritability
  • headaches
  • cold sores

Problem foods will need to eliminated from your diet for a long time, in order to allow your gut to repair. You may be able to reintroduce foods, after your gut has time to repair. The exception is gluten. People with gluten intolerance are intolerant for life.

Eliminating gluten from your diet sucks. There is no sugar coating making this change to your diet. It is DIFFICULT. Gluten is in everything. Eating at restaurants is tricky, and a lot of convenience foods contain gluten. The elimination diet is luckily a temporary change…but none the less, I imagine it is extremely difficult and a person needs to be super organized to pull it off.

I have not done Elimination/Provocation Diet yet. I have been attempting to live gluten free for a few years now, but I have not entirely eliminated gluten from my diet. In the past I figured that if I eliminated the majority of gluten from my diet that was enough. I did not worry about sauces, thickeners, etc. But now that I understand the connection to hypothyroidism and how a small amount of gluten can affect my immune system, I am going to get more serious about eliminating gluten from my diet. Plus, I had not eliminated other foods from my diet.

I speaking from experience when I say living gluten free is difficult. This type of change is where the ‘deviant’ part of ‘happy deviant’ comes in. In order to make this dramatic change to your diet, you have to be willing to tell your friends and family that you are not eating gluten and why. You have to give up foods that you love. You have to be willing to put effort into finding gluten-free products that you like and gluten-free meals that you like. However this type of change is also where the ‘happy’ part of ‘happy deviant’ comes in. Eliminating gluten from your diet may be your key to happiness.

Checkout this video: Can Gluten Cause Depression?

Of all of the negative effects that gluten intolerance and hypothyroidism fatigue, anxiety and depression are the ones that stand out for me. Within my family there are numerous people that have fatigue, anxiety and/or depression. There are people within my family that have had their lives severely impacted by these symptoms.

Living with a restricted diet is difficult, but living with fatigue, anxiety and/or depression is 100 times worse. Plus, there are a host of other symptoms that may be affecting you. The following are common symptoms of hypothyroidism and gluten intolerance[21][22]:

  • fatigue
  • moodiness/depression
  • increased sensitivity to cold
  • elevated blood cholesterol level
  • muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness
  • pain, stiffness or swelling is your joints
  • muscle weakness
  • brittle finger nails and hair
  • heavier than normal menstrual periods
  • Addison’s disease
  • gastrointestinal distress (gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, reflux)
  • headaches (including migrains)
  • infertility
  • mouth sores
  • inability to concentrate
  • seizures
  • anemia
  • Chronic fatigue
  • gall bladder disease
  • type 1 diabetes
  • epilepsy
  • systemic lupus
  • multiple sclerosis

There are many more symptoms…see the following links to see full lists:

Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance

Hypothyroidism Symptoms

Relief can be found through a change of diet. Also nutritional support can help. Thyroid replacement hormones are often the treatment given by both medical doctors and natural paths to treat hypothyroidism. However, it is much wiser to resolve the dietary problems that are leading to hypothyroidism. Dr. Kharrazian has found that addressing the conditions creating hypothyroidism through lifestyle changes can make thyroid replacement hormones unnecessary.  

If you want to look further into this, I highly recommend the following book: Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms?.

For anyone out there that is currently pursuing a restricted diet and/or is about to  begin pursuing a restricted diet, I wish you well on your journey towards greatness. 🙂


[12] Bailleres, Autoimmunity and hypothyroidism. Clin Endocrin Metab.  1988 Aug2(3):591-617

[13] Bailleres, Autoimmunity and hypothyroidism. Clin Endocrin Metab.  1988 Aug2(3):591-617

[14] Nakazawa, Donna, The Autoimmune Epidemic, 2008 Simon&Schuster pp 32-35

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~ by happydeviant on December 31, 2010.

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