Sorry if the image made you want a sandwich. Not helpful.
This is an article about how regularly eating bread and other grain products affects your health, specifically the functioning of your brain.
It could equally have been named, Is Your High Carbohydrate Diet Making You Stupid?, but that would’ve only been half of the story.
It appears that our dietary over-reliance on bread and other gluten-containing grains (think wheat, barley, rye and spelt) has been doing us a mischief.
And it’s not just that grains are a source of unnecessary carbohydrate – it appears that grain foods serve up a double-pronged inflammation attack on your intellect.
So how exactly is the humble loaf of bread, once thought to be a healthy addition to diet, damaging our most prized organ? And how can we eat and live in a way that reduces our chances of developing cognitive decline conditions, and keeps us sh*t hot sharp?
Documentary maker, Max Lugavere, who has been hanging out with the world’s top doctors and experts in neurological health, has a thing or two to say on the subject. I interview Max about his upcoming movie, Bread Head, below.
But before we get to that, some background on how and why grain has fallen from grace so epically.
When carbs became the new fat
The demonization of whole food groups is nothing new, and we should be cautious before making diet changes based on them. Dr Atkins, with his low carb, high animal fat diet, illustrated that. Even before carbs became a five letter dirty word, it was fat that was originally ostracized. We now know that that got us all into a hot mess with our health.
Although Atkins didn’t get the low carb diet quite right, the central premise – that carbohydrates make us fat – has stood the test of time. Research has demonstrated that low carbohydrate diets are more effective for weight management and many other markers of health.
Since Atkins enjoyed its heyday, some more nuanced, healthier interpretations have emerged. Notably among these are the Paleo diet (or Primal diet) and Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof diet. These ‘lifestyle diets’ all say the same thing when you drill it down:
- A diet that is relativity low in sugar, and higher in protein and healthy fats, is optimal for health;
- The carbohydrates that we do eat should be ‘slow release’; and
- Grains in their modern, heavily processed forms, have no place in a healthy diet.
The grain outliers
Once understood to be pillars of a healthy diet, grains have come under nuclear scale attack in recent years.
First up we had Wheat Belly author, Cardiologist Dr William Davis, exposing ‘healthy wholegrains’ as genetically altered Frankenwheat imposed on the public by agricultural geneticists and agribusiness. That opened up a few eyes and ears.
More recently, neurologist David Perlmutter MD whipped up a storm in his bestselling book, Grain Brain.
Perlmutter delivered the message that challenging brain problems, including Alzheimer’s disease, other forms of dementia, depression and ADHD, may be prevented with lifestyle changes. And what are those? A low carbohydrate and gluten free diet, coupled with higher fat and aerobic exercise.
Perlmutter posited that: “It has become clear that gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye) and a high-carbohydrate diet are among the most prominent stimulators of brain-based inflammation.”
Grains – a double negative
Evidence suggests that the damaging effects of eating gluten-containing grains are twofold:
- The inflammatory reaction caused by ingesting gluten. Gluten sensitivity has been linked to a variety of neurological problems. Even if you have no demonstrable symptoms (or aren’t aware of them, or haven’t made the link between them and your bread habit), research shows that almost everyone has an immune response to gluten.
- The effect of the astronomical content of sugar. Arguably the bigger issue, bread and other grain products send our blood sugar skyrocketing. So everything you have ever read about why sugar is bad for you applies to your baguette. And your wrap, and your panini. And pasta! Yep, even the wholegrain versions.
The deal with glue-ten
Gluten is the primary protein found in grains like wheat, barley, rye and oats. Because it’s tricky to break down, gluten enters the small intestine undigested, where it causes intestinal irritation. This inflammation is disastrous to health.
Not all grain products contain gluten (for example, rice). See below.
We don’t know for sure why some of us can tolerate gluten better than others. Chris Kresser has suggested it is to do with our microbiome. More on that below.
It’s uncontroversial that gluten doesn’t add to anyone’s health in a positive way, and mostly detracts from it to varying degrees.
Are all grains created equal?
In short, no. But not in the way you might think.
This is not the part where I tell you that wholegrains are healthy. The whole ‘brown’s better than white’ is part of that same old paradigm that pedaled fat as being unhealthy for us.
Brown bread is probably an even heavier contender for our dustbins than its white counterpart, purely because we have been indoctrinated to think that it’s good for us.
In order of grain villainy, the heavily processed ones are the worst. Dr Perlmutter says it is clear that “structurally modified, hybridized grains contain gluten that’s less tolerable than the gluten that was found in grains cultivated just a few decades ago.”
Dr Mark Hyman, author of The Blood Sugar Solution, agrees: “This new modern wheat may look like wheat, but it is different in three important ways that all drive obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia and more. It contains a super starch, amylopectin A, that is super fattening, a form of super gluten that is super inflammatory, and [acts like] a super drug that is super addictive and makes you crave and eat more.”
There are healthier grains, though. And despite their high carbohydrate content, some of us may still want to include them in our diets (we will look at why below). In addition to rice (brown, white, red and wild), better grains are amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff. There are more too.
Why bread ought to taste sweet
Most grain foods are 70% carbohydrate (that is, 70 grams of carbohydrate per 100 grams). That’s sugar. Your blood doesn’t know the difference.
Here is a label from an organic spelt product (spelt is wheat and contains gluten).
You’ll see that of a serving size of 1 cup (174 grams), 124 grams is sugar.
Every time we eat sugar that we don’t burn off, we form AGEs (Advanced Glycaemic End Products), which is one of the major causes of early onset ageing and degenerative disease (see my previous article on ageing). Your brain suffers in a particular way when you eat sugar, which I explain more below.
The grain – brain connection
Research shows that when we eat grains, our brain function decreases, we can develop brain damage over time and our IQ can even lose a few points. It’s understood that we have lost 10% of our brain mass since the dawn of agriculture.
Your brain on gluten
Here’s a mind-blowing idea: a gluten intolerance can manifest exclusively in your brain. So that’s gluten intolerance without any gastrointestinal problems whatsoever. Scary stuff.
Dr Maios Hadjivassiliou of the UK, a recognized world authority on gluten sensitivity, has reported that “gluten sensitivity can be primarily and at times, exclusively a neurological disease.”
Here are two specific ways that eating grains appears to damage the brain:
Inflammation: Gluten causes leakiness of the blood-brain barrier, resulting in inflammation. Chronic inflammation is a factor in early onset degenerative disease, including cognitive decline. Perlmutter has said that “All of the neurodegenerative diseases are really predicated on inflammation.”
We develop toxic antibodies: It is understood that we form specific antibodies to gluten molecules. The formation of one of these antibodies, GAD, is implicated in type I diabetes, adult auto-immune diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. The main neurological disorder believed to be at least partly caused by gluten is a disease that involves an inability to coordinate balance and problems talking. I know – sounds like you on a Friday night.
Excess carbohydrates and your brain
Most of us already knew that too much sugar helps to make us fat and give us bad skin.
Well, excessive carbohydrates are awful for the brain too, affecting long term cognitive function and short term psychological wellbeing.
Endocrinologist Dr Medha Munshi has said research “offers more evidence that the brain is a target organ for damage by high blood sugar.”
Here are some specific ways that a diet that is excessively high in carbohydrates has been linked to brain detriments:
It causes inflammation: Inflammation in the brain causes neurons to fire more slowly, slowing down mental acuity, recall, and reflexes. High inflammation eventually results in chronic disease.
Resistance to insulin: Insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar levels, regulates the function of brain cells, too. Insulin strengthens the synaptic connections between brain cells, helping them to communicate better and thereby form stronger memories. So when insulin levels in the brain are lowered as the result of excess sugar consumption, cognition can be impaired.
Affects our learning and memory: Prorogued high blood sugar levels affects the production of a chemical known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Without BDNF, our brains can’t form new memories and we can’t learn or remember much of anything.
Alzheimer’s – Type 3 Diabetes
Neuroscientist, Suzanne de la Monte MD, was the one to coin the term.
Brain cells use glucose as fuel, and insulin instructs the cells to mop up glucose in the blood. De la Monte’s big insight was that brain cells can develop insulin resistance, just like other cells in the body.
“Any organ can be affected by insulin resistance,” de la Monte says. “You can have it in the liver – we call that non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. If you get it in the kidney, we call it renal disease. If you get it in the brain, we call it Alzheimer’s.”
Her research has revealed that this creates a toxic environment for the brain, leading to the harmful buildup of proteins and neuron death seen in Alzheimer’s.
In addition to telling us more about how Alzheimer’s can be prevented through healthy diet and exercise, her insights could also help potentially treat the disease.
Max Lugavere interviews Suzanne as part of his documentary.
How to give yourself a beautiful mind
As Max will tell you, we don’t act like we own our brain health: “We just don’t see it as something to modulate”, he says.
We are quick to attribute mental fogginess, lack of alertness, slower brain speed – heck, lower intelligence – to personality.
But we can engineer an IQ that’s at its full potential, by feeding the brain what it needs and avoiding doing things that we know are harmful.
And how to feed our brain correctly isn’t complex. The key things are:
Water and oxygen: Proper hydration will always be top of the list. Optimal sources of water are (1) high water content plant foods, which have kind of been filtered for you already, (2) coconut water, and (3) filtered water and herbal infusions.
Second up, oxygen. Your brain uses 20% of the total oxygen in your body. For optimal oxygen uptake, practice proper breathing and do aerobic exercise. For quality oxygen, make use of house plants and otherwise do your best to minimize harmful effects of pollution. Long term exposure to pollution has been linked with brain shrinkage.
Protein: To feed your neurotransmitters, use a protein powder and focus on getting good sources through diet.
A steady amount of carbohydrate: No one (except maybe Atkins) would say that you should do away with carbohydrates completely. Keeping them ‘low’ just means not making them the central feature of your diet. Here is an approach grounded in sound logic.
Micro-nutrients: Vitamins and minerals. Mostly this can be done through good diet choices, but we need to supplement with B12 and Vitamin D.
Avoid anti-nutrients. These aren’t just in wheat.
Here are some additional things we can do to ensure quality brain functioning:
- Exercise. Exercise affects the brain on multiple fronts.
- Do both kinds of training. It’s not just cardio that has brain benefits.
- Get adequate sleep. Nap too. Failing to get enough sleep means your brain doesn’t flush out toxins.
- Avoid stress. It damages brain structure and has been linked to brain shrinkage.
- Crowd out your diet with nutrient dense, ‘brainmaker’ foods. In other words, eat like food is information. The foods that are good for your brain are the same foods that are good for every other organ. Some foods, for example blueberries, turmeric and walnuts, have been demonstrated to be particularly beneficial.
- Reduce your body weight. This is important. Time and time again, research has shown a link between overweight individuals, obesity and the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Be ultra aware of your microbiome. Feed it with prebiotic and probiotic foods, and don’t damage it routinely with antibiotics. See section on ‘gut bugs’ below.
- Make use of herbs. Key ones are mucuna pruriens (boosts your l dopa), gingko biloba and mushrooms (see my previous article on supplements extras). There is some very promising research about the benefits of ancient medicinal mushrooms such as chaga and lion’s mane. These products are now very commercially available.
- Meditate. It’s been found to improve memory, attention span and decision-making.
- Drink good quality organic espresso. It has a double benefit for your brain: (1) it’s a potent antioxidant and (2) it helps to clear the build up of amyloid plaque in your brain.
- Take high doses of Vitamin C. Studies emerge all the time about the powerful antioxidant, cardio-protective, and anti-aging properties of Vitamin C.
- Supplement with K2 and eat Natto. The forgotten nutrient has a powerful protective role in brain health.
- Supplement with Vitamin D. Mentioned above, but it bears repeating. It is critical to brain health and needs to be on our list of supplement essentials.
There are a ton of other things you can do to see positive changes in your brain functioning, including listening to music, letting your mind wander, fasting, learning a foreign language, quitting smoking, having sex, and writing. Follow your favorite experts, and keep yourself updated on all the latest research.
Channeling your inner Tim Ferris
A common thread with all of the amazing doctors and neuroscientists that are raising our health IQ is that they want to empower individuals to take charge of their health.
You know what that means. Time to channel your inner Tim Ferris.
Experiment and see what works best for you.
Whilst we can all benefit from eliminating highly processed gluten grains, you might discover that eliminating grains completely from your diet causes you to go out of balance somehow, and overeat other foods. Including some grains in your diet might therefore help you to moderate total food intake.
As well as selecting non gluten containing grains, you could:
- Try the sprouted and sourdough versions.
- Be mindful of the ways of reducing their insulin spiking effects.
- Don’t make grains a big feature of your diet. Get higher nutrient dense foods in first.
Going ‘grain free’ is a lot easier than it used to be. There are a ton of nifty tricks you can do to mimic some of your favorite grain based foods. David Purlmutter has a ton of resources on his site and you can find loads of recipes online.
For a variety of reasons, it’s smart to opt for foods that are naturally gluten free (without any label needing to tell you). You’ll already have noticed that the gluten free craze has enabled product makers to cash in on many junk food items masquerading as healthy items.
Going ‘low carb’
Feeling moved to throw the towel in on carbohydrates altogether? Hold your horses!
Integrative Practitioner and author Chris Kresser has said: “It’s important to realize that just because a low-carb diet can help treat neurological disorders, doesn’t mean the carbs caused the disorder in the first place.” I am sure that Perlmutter and Davis would agree.
The consumption of wholegrains has been linked to the reduction of chronic disease and many of the studied centenarian populations have diets that are relatively high in wholegrains and other carbohydrate foods.
The fact is, although the scales are tipping strongly in the low carb diet favor, there is evidence supporting both sides of the argument as to whether relatively low or high carbohydrate diets are optimal.
Nutrition is a complex science, and the best we can do is take a proactive approach to learning about it, and deciding for ourselves (with some self experimentation) what the best diet is for us.
In other words, use your loaf.
What your gut bugs have to do with any of it
You’ll notice I mention intestinal health a lot in my articles. That’s because in any discussion about health, it always comes back to this as being pivotal.
Chris Kresser has suggested that the potentially harmful compounds in newer foods such as wheat are not a significant risk factor for inflammatory disease, as long as the Paleolithic microbiome – our gut bugs – is still intact. When our microbiome is depleted or deficient, only then do these foods become risk factors for inflammatory disease.
Kresser says that if we still had the Paleolithic microbiome intact, we could tolerate grains and all of these compounds without a problem.
This point is key because it resolves some of the apparent conflicts in the ancestral paradigm. It can explain the reason many cultures ate grains for thousands of years and the health conditions we attribute to grains were incredibly rare.
I recently wrote about one food that helps to maintain good microbiome – kefir.
The man bringing brain health to the forefront for Millennials
Filmmaker and media personality Max Lugavere is on a mission to make the link between le pain and the health of your brain ingrained on a younger crowd. Yes, just when I thought I’d manage to resist a terrible pun…I couldn’t.
Max’s upcoming documentary, Bread Head, will explore the impact of diet and lifestyle on brain health.
Already passionate about optimal health, Max was moved to discover all he could about optimizing brain health after his 59 year old Mum started to display cognitive decline.
I chewed the fat with Max about Bread Head and other stuff to do with health. He covers a lot of ground and gives away a ton of great information, so I would recommend that you read it like your brain depended on it.
Interview with Max Lugavere
Hi Max! Congrats on nailing the funding for your documentary, Bread Head, on Kickstarter. We love what you are doing and we can’t wait for the documentary to come out.
Max: Thanks so much! I love what you’re doing!
Max, as I understand it, you can have an Alzheimer’s gene, and you can develop Alzheimer’s even where you don’t have the gene. The documentary is focused on the second thing: how to prevent Alzheimer’s through diet and lifestyle. Is that right? Do you look at how to alter your genetic fate as well?
Max: That’s true for the vast majority of cases.
Alzheimer’s (AD) is not a genetic disease (with the exception of familial early onset type), but there is a genetic risk factor. Many people with this risk factor don’t develop AD, and many with AD don’t have the gene. So as you can see, for the majority, genes truly are not destiny.
But it’s important to mention: The reason I talk a lot about Alzheimer’s is that it’s the most common form of dementia. The documentary will be focused a little more broadly than just about Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is important because it’s common, and we’ve established these genetic risk markers. But most neurodegenerative diseases share common features, like inflammation. Even Parkinson’s, a movement disorder, the second most common neurodegenerative disease, shares the inflammation component.
There’s some evidence now that Parkinson’s might be a disease that begins in the gut. MS also has been linked to the gut. Well, the gut is a major driver of inflammation in the body. So there is major overlap. And while we can’t control everything, there is a lot that we can control.
I am trying to spread the optimism and empowering science that we may minimize our risk and, at the same time, optimize our cognitive function while we are healthy – which is hopefully for our whole lives.
What’s been the most fun and awe inspiring aspect about filming Bread Head?
Max: For one, getting to meet scientists who are just as excited about my work as I am theirs. To me, scientists are rockstars. Many doctors are rockstars—the doctors who see their role in health more as teachers. I LOVE getting to interview them, and really geek out when I get to talk to them on their level.
And the best thing about it all is that because I’m untethered to any one school of thought or ideology, I get to synthesize all of this stuff I’m learning to communicate in a way that makes sense, and is much more comprehensive than… oh, I just read a book.
What has surprised you? You’re a self-confessed health and nutrition junkie: have you learned something that caused you to change your own diet?
Max: I used to think that wholegrains were great for you, and that white carbs were toxic. Well, I’ve cut out wholegrains, and I’ll tell you why.
I think many in the scientific community still consider ‘whole grains’ healthy, and certainly, they are healthier than non-whole grains. And especially, refined grains. There’s no doubt about that.
But I believe that a lot of why we consider wholegrains healthy is because we see epidemiological data where people are eating lots of wholegrains and they are seemingly healthy.
You might infer that these people that are eating so many wholegrains are doing other healthful things, like exercising a lot, and that the grains are part of a larger, healthy dietary pattern—like the Mediterranean diet.
But I’m interested in optimal. If you look at the more granular studies about the deleterious effects that even mildly elevated blood sugar can have, it’s easy to become skeptical of the wholegrain halo.
Remember: There’s no such thing as an essential grain. There’s zero evidence that humans need to consume wheat. Or even brown rice. So what I’ve done is I’ve eliminated them to save myself the blood sugar, and replaced them with lots of vegetables, healthy fat sources, fiber sources like nuts, and so on.
Thankfully, the randomized control trials that actually do test high versus low carb diets see again and again that the low carb diets win in a broad range of measures.
Brain health was made a compelling subject matter for you by your mum, Kathy. Do you think that people need some kind of an incentive to look after brain health, or can you see all thirty somethings taking a preventative/proactive approach to it?
Max: I think young people just don’t see brain health or function as something they can modulate. But who wouldn’t want to optimize their cognitive performance, if only they knew how? It’s not like young people are walking around scared of having heart attacks, but that doesn’t prevent millions of people from piling into gyms every day to do ‘cardio’. They know that working out is good for their cardiovascular system. I want to get people thinking about diet and exercise in the context of how they actually think.
What else do you think people need to know about in health? What will you turn your attentions to after Bread Head?
Max: Nutrition is a complicated science, but eating healthily isn’t. 9% of US adults ate the recommended 2-3 daily cups of vegetables in 2013. Let’s start there. This is the most basic level of nutrition. Make sure you’re getting your greens, check your vitamin D, cut the sugar, cut the carbs, cut the trans fats, and then we can work on optimization.
I just love nutrition and health science so much, and translating it for normal people, so I will probably look to do more in this space.
When will Bread Head be released?
Max: We are looking at a 2016 release, with big news in the beginning of the year. Stay tuned.
Thank you Max – we can’t wait.
Meantime, check out Max’s YouTube videos, where he is pumping out bitesize shots of insight into the myriad of ways you can seize your genetic destiny by doing everything from inhaling grass to going hungry.
What do you do to keep your brain healthy and functioning optimally? Tell us in the comments below!