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Broken Bodies: The Dangers of Gluten and Grains

What did you have for dinner tonight? Pizza? Spaghetti and garlic bread? A burger and fries? Breaded (vegetarian) chicken and rice, like me? What about lunch? A sandwich? Microwavable soup? A hot pocket? And how about breakfast? Cereal? A bagel? A granola bar? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ve ingested gluten today. And your body most likely hates you for it.
Now, I’m sure many people have already stopped reading this post. If they’re anything like some people I know, they’re too entrenched in the gluten way of life to deviate from that lifestyle, no matter how many facts are thrown at them. The FDA says whole grains are good for you, and that’s good enough for them. Holistic nutrition is a pagan religion in their eyes, practiced only by hippies and heretics. They’d rather leave the sprouted grains and grasses for us nutritional anarchists.

The simple truth is this: gluten is bad. Humans were never meant to eat gluten – it literally eats away at our digestive tract – and certainly not in the form found in modern foods.

The Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture announced in 1967 that the average annual consumption of grains per person was 115 lbs. By 2003, that number had risen to 139 lbs. While this isn’t a startlingly large jump, take into consideration the amount of gluten in grains. Bioengineers are altering grains to increase the gluten level, which makes flours stickier and increases the protein content; studies have shown that today’s wheat contains almost 90% more gluten than it did when agriculture first started.

In a study done in the 1930s by Weston Price, a nutrition pioneer who traveled the world doing research, Price visited villages in Switzerland, Gaelic communities on the Outer Hebrides, Aboriginies, New Zealand Maori, Eskimos, Native Americans, South Sea Islanders, African tribes, and Indians of South America to study their diets. Despite the differences in environment and culture, all of these peoples had similar diets comprised of fruits, vegetables, nuts, honey, game, fowl, eggs, fish, and raw milk, with no refined foods, sugars, or wheat. And all of these peoples were characterized by a high resistance to diseases, strong bones and teeth, and virtually no cancer or autoimmune diseases.

All these facts are well and good, but if you’re like me, facts are not going to influence you unless you understand the underlying principles. Why is gluten bad? What about that yummy substance is so gosh darn terrible? It’s in absolutely everything, from breads to soups to meat-substitutes to cereal. Why should I change my entire diet just to eliminate this ingredient I really don’t know anything about?

The best description I’ve found comes from Lierre Keith in her book The Vegetarian Myth (a book I’d highly recommend to anyone). She explains not just the symptoms of gluten sensitivity, but the specific processes that grains interrupt, causing those symptoms. And whether you have a biology degree or not, it’s pretty scary stuff. Here’s a short summary of the relationship between gluten and your belly:

Your intestines make up a large part of your body, simply because they have a big job to do. The average intestine is 22 ft long when unraveled, and they are folded so compactly that if a single centimeter was unfolded and flattened, it could cover a tennis court. These folds, called villi, increase the surface area and allow for more absorption. Microvilli are smaller folds on the outside of the villi where digestive enzymes break down proteins into amino acids & starches into sugars. From there they move through the villi to the lining of the gut, where specialized seals called tight junctions allow the nutrients into the bloodstream and where toxins and other harmful substances are blocked. The intestines are packed so tightly that when this line of defense fails, it can’t turn to inflammation like other places, so specialized cells capture the invading substance while other cells called lymphocytes manufacture poisons to kill the invaders.

The outer shell of grains is filled with enzyme blockers that act as a pesticide against insects and animals (including humans) and ensure that if they are eaten they won’t be digested, merely passed through the digestive tract and deposited back into the earth where they can grow. Most animals only ingest grains by accident, or are fed them by their owners. Those animals that do live on grains and grasses have 4 or more stomachs in which 2 are used for predigestion to help break down enzyme inhibitors. Humans only have one, and it was not designed to digest grains.

Grains overload the gut with starches and sugars, which the intestines then pass onto the colon undigested. This creates the perfect breeding ground for bacteria, and the colon’s normal bacterial population explodes, often surging back up into the gut and causing inflammation. Because the intestines are packed so tightly, when inflammation does occur, the bristles of the microvilli are flattened and thus digestion and absorption are impaired. This sends more food undigested to the colon, creating a vicious cycle of digestive warfare.

These bacterial tidal waves also damage the tight junctions, letting substances that would normally be blocked into the blood stream. These substances include gluten and lectins, another dangerous, gluten-like protein found in grains as well as beans, rice, and potatoes. Gluten and lectins are proteins that bind to specific types of carbohydrates, break through the cell membrane, and attack the cell, causing immune and autoimmune reactions. Neither hydrochloric acid nor digestive enzymes can destroy these, so though they usually got blocked from entering the blood stream and get passed on as waste, when inflammation has damaged the tight junctions, these nasty little proteins are able to get into the bloodstream and wreak their havoc. They cause damage throughout the body by “molecular mimicry;” their protein sequences are almost exactly the same as many tissues in the human body, and once the immune system learns to attach the foreign proteins, it often goes after the similar tissues. Thus they can cause problems in the joints, the organs, the skin, the muscles, the nerves… You name it, they’ve got it covered. Many of these reactions are the source of “autoimmune” diseases, where the body literally attacks itself because it can’t tell its own cells from the bad ones. These dangerous proteins can also bind to the cells of the digestive tract and cause damage there, shortening the villi, affecting the intestinal flora, and even attacking and killing the cells of your gut. Once they’ve started damaging the gut, more and more of them leak into the bloodstream, starting a cycle of autoimmune reactions that will only stop once grains are removed from the diet.

If you’re a firm believer in the FDA, the NIH, AMA, and all those other acronyms the pharmaceutical companies hide behind, then you probably haven’t read this far. But if you truly care about your body, give gluten-freedom a shot. I know it’s tough, because let’s face it, gluten is everywhere. It’s the staple food of America, even for vegetarians who give up meat to try to be healthy. Giving up gluten means giving up McDonalds. Italian restaurants. Cake. Crackers. Cookie dough ice cream. Pizza. (Trust me, I was just as depressed about all this when I first started as you probably are, but it’s doable!) As Lierre Keith says, “I think it’s almost impossible for most people to step outside their culture and question its practices, especially those practices where power and taboo coalesce – sex, religion, food. To understand that agricultural foods are not the foods we were designed to eat throws the entire project of civilization into a new and uneasy light, and who is willing to do that? Yet the truth about agriculture is there, waiting in the wreckage of our bodies like it waits in the broken skeletons of forests…”

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A Little Clarity

As I debated over which of the myriad topics on my list I should write about first, I realized that this blog was already blossoming into a life of its own, one that I know I will be powerless to shape, much less stop.  So readers (if you’re out there!) beware, you’re in for a long and meandering ride.

I also realized that although this blog is going to pull me in whatever direction it chooses, I need to bring a little clarity to this wordy adventure, for both my sake and yours.  Let’s start with some adjectives.  They’re fun and descriptive.  Environmentally-friendly? Definitely.  Health conscious?  Oh yes!  Animist?  Yes.  Feminist?  Power to the sisters.  Spiritual?  At times.  Liberal?  Aha, there’s the key word.  Yes, this is a liberal blog, and I would like to think it’s an radical blog as well, but a blog by itself can’t be radical.  Words cannot change governments, they can’t fix corrupt industries, they can’t save a dying planet.  Only people can do that.  Words spread ideas; actions spread change.  And that’s the difference between liberal and radical.

In her book The Vegetarian Myth, Lierre Keith address the dichotomy between liberalism and radicalism.  Liberals are idealists and individualists, believing that all power stems from concepts, attitudes, and personal belief.  Change some minds, change the world.  That strategy would make life on this earth so much better, wouldn’t it?  But we all know it doesn’t work like that.  That’s when the radicals come barreling in.  Instead of focusing on individuals and ideas, radicals look at society in groups – economic, gender-based, racial, etc – who must challenge the group in power that is responsible for whatever injustices they aim to correct.  Liberal ideals or radical actions: make your choice.

So yes, I am liberal.  I am a vegetarian.  I eat local and organic as much as possible.  I put as few medicinal drugs in my body as possible.  I recycle.  I don’t drive.  My religion is the circle of life, cliche though it might sound.  I keep myself updated on environmental, political, and health issues, and I try to spread whatever small kernels of wisdom I happen upon, hence this blog.  But though I’d like to claim that I’m a radical fighting for the health of my species and my planet, I’m can’t claim that shining title.  I do my part, but as Keith says, “Neither of these approaches – personal psychological change or personal lifestyle choices – is going to disrupt the global arrangements of power…  This is easier, much easier, because it makes no demands on us.  It requires no courage or sacrifice, no persistence or honor, which is what direct confrontations with power must require…  Rose Parks on her own ended up in jail.  Rosa Parks plus the courage, sacrifice, and political will of the whole Black community of Montgomery, Alabama ended segregation on the public transportation system.”

I’m a Rosa Parks, and I’m sure many of you are too.  But alone with our thoughts, we can only spread ideas.  Maybe one day soon we’ll all have the courage and honor to challenge the forces destroying our bodies, our society, our planet.  Until then, I’m just trying to bring a little clarity to the world.

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I Think, Therefore I Write

“You say we’re too young, but maybe you’re too old to remember.”

Cliche origins aside, this quote has always struck a cord in me.  A strong, thrumming cord that has hummed its way through my life since I first heard it on the radio sometime in middle school.  I’d bet that most people have been told “you’re too young” or “you’ll understand when you’re older.”  If you’re under the age of about 25, I’m sure you hear it quite often from those much older and wiser than you.  And to some extent, it’s true.  No, I don’t understand motherhood with all its wonders and worries.  No, I don’t know the joy of a wedding day, the heartache of losing a loved one, the horror of war.  Life hasn’t brought me that far yet.

But that doesn’t mean I’m ignorant.  I do know the horrors of genocide; history and the world has taught me that.  I know the anger of being lied to – by the government, by society, by friends and lovers.  I know the joy of true love and the devastation of heartbreak.  I know the burning passion for knowledge that smolders within us all.  I know the wonder of seeing your first shooting star.  And I know the power of words.  I am a student of Shakespeare, and I learned his lesson well: no matter what age, gender, or race, words are your power.

All of this sounds a bit presumptuous, I know.  I’m just another young writer with a point to prove.  But if my 4 years of college taught me anything, it’s that you never give up writing until there is nothing left to write, and when that day comes, it will be a sad day indeed.  This blog, then, is my outlet, the chronicle of my path to knowledge.  Everyday holds a lesson, and whether small or large, it adds to the understanding your elders say will come with time.  There’s no thunderous epiphany that dawns in you when you reach the magical age of “older;” wisdom builds and builds, one thought at a time.  These are my thoughts, and I hope they will inspire and enlighten others as they have me.

“Make it happen,” Cleopatra signed on her scrolls.  Make your thoughts change the world.