Modern Day Wheat & Autoimmunity

Wheat and autoimmune conditions

Wheat dates back as old as civilization.  So, why does it seem that people are suddenly getting so sick from a food that’s been a staple since time immemorial?

The short answer is, today’s wheat is not the wheat of our ancestors.

Going back about 10,000 years, the original wheat, einkorn wheat is genetically different from modern day wheat.  Einkorn is a diploid wheat species meaning that it has 14 chromosomes.

Emmer, a natural offspring of einkorn that naturally hybridized with a type of goatgrass, emerged next.  Emmer is a tetraploid wheat meaning that it has 28 chromosomes or twice as many as einkorn. 

Einkorn and emmer remained the mainstay wheat varieties for thousands of years.  Eventually, emmer wheat (Triticum turgidum) naturally mated with another grass, Triticum tauschii, resulting in the 42 chromosome ancestor to modern wheat, Triticum aestivium.  T. aestivium was higher yielding and more amenable to baking than einkorn and emmer wheat.  For centuries, it remained unchanged. 

In 1943, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center was set up as a collaboration between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government to help Mexico achieve agricultural self-sufficiency.  The goal of the IMWIC evolved into a worldwide effort to reduce world hunger, and the organization created many varieties of wheat with higher yields.

At face value, the goals of the IMWIC are admirable, and these wheat hybrids yielded heavy seed pods, so heavy in fact that the seed head caused the stalk to buckle, which killed the plant and created issues during harvesting. 

Geneticist Norman Borlaug hybridized around this problem developing a very high-yielding dwarf wheat variety at once shorter and stockier than its predecessors with a larger seed head.

The shorter stalk translated into less time to reach maturity, and this hybridization earned Dr. Borlaug the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal. 

Dwarf wheat varieties now predominate global wheat supply, predicated at 99 percent of all wheat grown worldwide as of the time Wheat Belly was written in 2011.

So, what’s wrong with all of this hybridization and more chromosomes? 

Einkorn wheat’s 14 chromosomes code for the A set of gluten proteins in wheat.  Einkorn's a diploid wheat species.

Emmer wheat’s 28 chromosomes code for the A and B set of gluten proteins in wheat.  Emmer's a tetraploid wheat species.

Modern day wheat’s 42 chromosomes code for the A, B, and D set of gluten proteins in wheat.  Modern day wheat's a hexaploid wheat species.

What’s this have to do with autoimmunity?

Gluten is a protein.  Or, rather, gluten is a mixture of two proteins, glutenins and gliadins, both in the class of proteins known as prolamins, which are responsible for wheat's energy storage to provide energy to the seed. 

Glutenin and gliadin are each classes of proteins, so there are many different glutenin and gliadin proteins.  Glutenin proteins are classified as either high or low molecular weight with a size between 200,000 Daltons and a few million Daltons. 

Glutenins have a fibrous structure and are rich in cysteine, a sulfur containing amino acid, and because of its structure, glutenins form intermolecular disulfide bonds interlinking one glutenin molecule to another. 

Gliadins are globular in structure with many intramolecular disulfide bonds to hold the protein in a globular shape.  For people with Celiac Disease, it’s the body’s response to the presence of gliadin which causes the autoimmune response. 

Wheat, barley, and rye all contain prolamins, again, just plant storage proteins, with high proline content.  And, it's the highly repeating frequency of proline amino acids in gliadins that create the autoimmune response seen in CD. 

Gluten and leaky gut

Gluten proteins resist enzymatic breakdown

Gluten proteins are highly resistant to digestion by protease enzymes in the GI tract.  Partial digestion of gluten proteins generates pathogenic peptides, which trigger an autoimmune response in those with Celiac Disease and in those with gluten sensitivity.

Once in the digestive tract, gluten is partially hydrolyzed by protease enzymes in the GI tract. 

Gluten proteins increase intestinal permeability

Gluten up-regulates release of the intestinal peptide, zonulin, in the small intestines, and this peptide is involved in tight junction regulation and suspected to be part of the reason for gluten’s increased permeability across the intestinal membrane. 

Zonulin production is increased regardless of whether you have an autoimmune reaction to gluten, and it’s believed this is how wheat plays a role in the pathogenesis of both Type 1 (autoimmune) and Type 2 diabetes.

Increased levels of zonulin increase the permeability of the gut allowing gluten proteins and other foreign substances that normally wouldn’t be able to cross the intestinal membrane to leak through the intestines and find their way into the blood stream. 

When recognized by the immune system in susceptible individuals, these compounds can trigger a host of reactions including migraines, eczema, chronic fatigue, food allergies, or trigger an autoimmune flare.

The interesting thing about CD is that it can display “non-classic symptoms” including:

  • Malabsorption
  • Osteoporosis
  • Iron deficiency

Since about 1950, Triticum aestivium, the closest ancestor of modern day wheat, has been hybridized countless times not only to increase crop yields but also to increase its uses and aesthetics in baking. 

Most of the gentetic modifications and hybridizations have focused on altering the D genome of the chromosomes, and it's the proteins coded by the D genome that are most frequently identified as the trigger for CD and autoimmune responses.

Indeed, even though einkorn wheat has a higher ratio of gliadin to glutenin proteins, a number of studies show that einkorn wheat does not induce the same autoimmune response at least in vitro in individuals diagnosed with CD.

Why is this?

While einkorn wheat contains both gliadins and glutenins, the chromosomes code for different gliadin and glutenin proteins. 

The gliadin proteins present in einkorn wheat are more digestible by enzymes within the digestive tract than those in modern day wheat. 

In one study, intestinal tissue from biopsies of 12 patients with CD was exposed to Triticum monococcum (einkorn) gliadin for 24 hours.  No significant immune response was observed. 

By contrast, upon exposing the biopsied tissue to gliadin from T. aestivum (a modern day wheat cultivar) for 24 hours, there was significant morphological changes and alterations in expression of immune markers associated with CD.

Is einkorn wheat safe for people with Celiac Disease?

Time for a disclaimer, I'm not a doctor, healthcare practitioner, or in any other way authorized to provide medical advice.  The information shared here has not been reviewed by the FDA.

Possibly.  In his book, Wheat Belly, Dr. William Davis subjects himself to an experiment where he eats einkorn wheat on day one and the next day eats modern day wheat.  With his wheat sensitivity, he expected rather quick side effects from consumption and was pleasantly surprised that when he at the einkorn wheat, he didn't experience any of the symptoms typical of his wheat sensitivity.

The next day, when he ate modern day wheat, he experienced his usual and rather rapid onset of symptoms:  high blood sugar quickly after ingestion, nausea, and sleeplessness.

Like many doctors and healthcare experts who make claims contrary to convention, Dr. Davis has come under attack by the medical establishment for his book Wheat Belly and also his claims regarding modern day wheat.

And, to reiterate, Dr. Davis does not have CD.  He has a wheat sensitivity.

I discovered my own gluten sensitivity after being diagnosed with Lyme Disease.  For me, wheat was second to barley in triggering a response.  And, for me, I experienced extreme anxiety after ingesting gluten... especially after drinking a microbrew.  Which leads to another part of this discussion.

Wheat, barley, and rye are generally considered the three grains that contain immune stimulating glutens.  This is because the prolamin proteins in these three grains have highly repetitive proline sequences in their amino acid sequence that likely evade enzymatic digestion.  In rye, the gluten equivalent is secalins and in barley hordeins.

Proteins in other grains such as corn and rice are also commonly called gluten, however, they don’t cause the same kinds of immune responses in the body.

Why might microbrews trigger a stronger immune response even than wheat?  The gliadin proteins are soluble in alcohols like ethanol and insoluble in water.  So, when you ingest these proteins in liquid form (in the form of a microbrew), you're introducing ethanol from the beer along with the gliadin protein into your intestines at the same time.

Because those proteins are already dissolved in the beer, this is different even than eating bread and drinking wine because the wine would have to work its way through the chewed bread and dissolve the gliadin proteins, and that work's already been done in a microbrew.

For beer, finding a great tasting replacement was easy.

Omission makes beer with barley and then uses enzymes to digest the gluten.  For me, that solved my problem with beer.  Again, I'm gluten sensitive, I don't have CD.

As for the wheat... Jovial Foods offers einkorn wheat flour and einkorn wheat pasta.  Recently, they've switched their pasta offerings completely to gluten free alternatives.  Still, I use Jovial flour exclusively, and, at least for me, I don't experience the symptoms associated with wheat ingestion when I eat einkorn wheat. 

Please note, I'm not an affiliate of either Omission or Jovial Foods.  I discovered these companies around 2012 or 2013 and have been an avid consumer of both ever since. 

How does einkorn wheat flour work in baking?  I use einkorn wheat exactly the same as regular wheat.  I don't make my own bread, however, I substitute it in all cookie recipes, pie recipes, and biscuit recipes.

So, if you're gluten sensitive or just would like to avoid modern day wheat, consider Jovial Foods as your resource for ancient wheat. 

If you have CD, it's much harder for me to even suggest that you try ancient wheat, and the reason for this is that a reaction might land you in the hospital depending on your typical reaction to gluten.

Again, I'm not a healthcare practitioner, and your health is in your hands should you choose to take action on this information.

One last note before closing out this topic.  Why is it that some of us have such a brutal reaction to modern day wheat and some of us seem just fine? 

While the majority of your gut microbiome may reside in your large intestines, there's still some flora in your small intestines, and enzymes created even from the limited number of bacteria species there might influence your reaction to gluten.

Next time on the podcast, we're taking a look at Round-up and how it might also be impacting your body's ability to deal with gluten. 

Stephanie Center joins me for that conversation, so be sure to hit the subscribe button because this is one episode you don't want to miss.


Pentaploid Wheat Hybrids

Durum Wheat's Tetraploid

Brandy Searcy founder Rain Organica

About the Author

Brandy's a formulation scientist and self-proclaimed health geek who loves hiking, gardening, bird-watching, and body boarding. 

Her struggle with acne during her teens and 20s led to a holistic and healthy approach to skincare, embracing skin as an organ to be loved and cared for rather than a canvas to wage war on. 

Since 2008, she's been developing all-in-one products for a simple routine at home, & Rain Organica started when her backpacking friends asked for a portable skincare routine to keep their skin healthy & happy on and off the trails.

You can try Rain Organica for yourself with The Essentials Kit, a complete skincare routine in just 3 steps.

Brandy's LinkedIn Bio

Subscribe to our newsletter:

← Older Post Newer Post →

← Back to All Articles