There are important health issues to consider when grains are included in the diet. Modern day diets are heavily based around consuming foods made from processed grains. Take the Western diet for example, it is biased towards foods made from processed wheat like bread, pasta, noodles, pizza, cakes, biscuits and breakfast cereals.
If we look at traditional cultures they have also consumed grains however there are some significant differences in the way that they have been prepared. For example many traditional cultures have consumed whole grains which have either been been soaked overnight prior to cooking or fermented as it improves on their digestibility. Soaking hydrates the grains and helps to reduce phytates which are compounds found within many grains. Phytates bind with important minerals like magnesium, calcium and zinc making them unavailable for absorption by the body. Fermentation also improves digestibility and lowers the phytate content within the grain. The lower levels of grain processing found within traditional cultures also helps to retain significantly higher levels of nutrients.
So what are the main issues around grains and why do many alternative/complementary health professions suggest reducing the consumption of grains or the gluten containing grains?
Firstly, in order to digest grains there must be sufficient amount of water within the body as all grains act like sponges absorbing significant amounts of water from the body. Therefore for someone who is chronically dehydrated, consuming grains like wheat, oats, barley, rye etc will be very stressful for their body to digest as they will make the body draw on its own internal water reserves.
Regular consumption of grains for someone with chronic dehydration will irritate the digestive system which in turn invokes an inflammatory response to promote healing. The mucous layer of the digestive system which protects the digestive system and aids the movement of digesting food thickens when irritable foods like grains are consumed. Over time the increasing mucous layer starts to present problems as it encourages the growth of harmful micro-organisms and presents a barrier between the digestive enzymes and foods.
As this situation continues, the gut wall becomes irritated and damaged resulting in undigested foods and toxicity leaking out from the digestive system into the bloodstream where it affects other parts of the body. When this occurs it triggers an autoimmune response from the body which attempts to reduce the levels of toxicity and irritation. This toxicity in turn can eventually irritate other parts of the body such as the joints, skin, lungs and even the brain.
Another issue which impairs grain digestion involves an imbalanced small intestine being present from early childhood. In certain individuals the small intestine failed to correctly develop due to issues like chronic dehydration and deficiencies in key nutrients like zinc and essential fatty acids. These imbalances result in the villi which are minute finger-like projections extending from the wall of the small intestine not forming correctly. This condition is known as coeliac's disease. As the intestinal villi are vital to digestion and nutrient absorption, coeliac's will have issues with digestion and nutrient malabsorption.
For individual's with coeliac’s disease there is also an overload of mucous covering the imbalanced villi which help to protect inflamed areas but also prevent access to digestive enzymes for breaking down grains. The gut microflora which should contain beneficial bacteria for helping with digestion, immunity and producing valuble vitamins is usually imbalanced. This means that there will be issues with absorbing nutrients even though they may be present within the diet.
For coeliacs gluten, a protein found within many grains will present a significant challenge to digestion.
What are the issues around Gluten?
Due to imbalances like dehydration, excess intestinal mucous, inability to access digestive enzymes and an imbalanced gut microflora, certain individuals such as coeliacs will be unable to break down and digest gluten.
Gluten is a mixture of two types of proteins: prolamins and glutelins. Technically all grains contain some form of gluten, but whilst the prolamins in rice and corn gluten cause little or no irritation, the prolamins in wheat (called gliadin), barley (called hordein), and rye (called secalin) are highly irritating for sensitive individuals.
In sensitive individuals, gluten triggers gut irritation and over time will damage the gut wall. It is highly likely that toxicity and undigested foods will then leak out of the damaged intenstines and enter the blood where it can trigger immune responses and further irritation to the body.
The common high irritating gluten containing grains include: wheat, rye, oats, spelt and barley and should be avoided by coeliacs and sensitive individuals.
Low irritable forms of gluten are found in rice, millet, buckwheat, corn, amaranth, teff, sorghum and quinoa and it is recommended that coeliacs and sensitive individuals use these forms of grain instead.
How is this situation resolved?
Depending on the level of dehydration and the individual case history it may be necessary to either:
- Reduce consumption of gluten containing grains: wheat, rye, oats and barley or
- Eliminate consumption of gluten containing grains: wheat, rye, oats and barley or
- Reduce consumption of all grains or
- Eliminate all grains completely
The reduction or elimination of grains or only gluten-containing grains would need to be carried out alongside a program of cleansing naturopathic techniques to help improve elimination of toxicity. A program of nutritional support to help heal the digestive system and to address imbalances like dehydration, nutritional deficiencies etc would also need to be incorporated.
Other Issues with Grains
In certain individuals, blood sugar imbalances can be triggered by consuming processed grains. Processed grains are broken down by the body into glucose rapidly causing a blood sugar spike. This will invoke an insulin response to rapidly re-correct blood sugar. Processed grains like refined white flour in particular are also deficient in vital minerals like zinc, magnesium and calcium. In order to digest these grains, the body has to draw on its own nutrient reserves which are found within the bones, teeth, joints and digestive system. Over time this situation causes mineral imbalances, which in turn influences blood sugar resulting in a rapid lowering of blood sugar. This dropping of blood sugar is registered as stress within the body and stimulates the individual to raise blood sugar often by the use of a stimulant such as caffeine, sugar, nicotine. Over time this situation leads to further dehydration, mineral imbalance and can adversely influence mood.
Be Smart With Grains
- Use whole grains as they will have a higher level of vitamins and minerals than processed grains and will not drain the body of its internal mineral reserves.
- Soak grains before cooking overnight in filtered water to rehydrate and reduce phytate content.
- Slow-cook grains in plenty of water this will help make them easier to digest.
- If there are signs of dehydration within your body aim to reduce grains containing gluten as they are more dehydrating until hydration issues within the body improve. If in doubt seek professional advice.