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Could two of the Western world's most popular foods - wheat and cow's dairy - be depleting you of your antioxidants and altering your DNA expression in a harmful way?
A fascinating new study sheds much needed light on the topic of why a diet free of wheat gluten and the cow's milk protein known as casein have commonly been reported to have such a wide range of health benefits, particularly when it comes to gastrointestinal distress and neurological disorders; Or, said oppositely, the study reveals why the centerpiece of the Western dietary pattern -- a gluten and casein-rich diet -- may participate in an extraordinarily wide range of health problems, many of which we have been documenting extensively on our open access database: gluten harms and casein harms. We also featured the neurotoxicity of gluten and casein in three previous articles you can review below for a more in depth perspective on their intrinsically harmful nature:
- Two Foods That May Sabotage Your Brain
There has been no lack of controversy and debate in recent years as to why a wheat and gluten containing grain-free diet has been found anecdotally as well as in an increasing number of published case studies to have such remarkable benefit for those suffering with autism spectrum disorders and even schizophrenia. Also, many have questioned why cow's milk-based formula fed infants are at so much higher risk of hundreds of disorders versus breast-fed children? Could something yet to be fully identified within these omnipresent Western foods being harming those who consume them?
While the addictive and/or neurotoxic properties of casein and gluten peptides likely play a role, a new mechanism of action has recently been identified that may help to explain these concerning associations...
Wheat (Gluten) and Milk (Casein) Deplete Our Antioxidant System & Alter Our DNA Expression
Published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry and titled, "Food-derived opioid peptides inhibit cysteine uptake with redox and epigenetic consequences," researchers discussed the emerging evidence pointing to systemic oxidative stress and inflammation as an underlying factor in neurological disorders such as autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. Since the antioxidant glutathione (GSH) is often found at significantly lower levels in those suffering from these disorders, and owing to the fact that GSH synthesis depends on the availability of the amino acid cysteine, the researchers pointed out the possible role of cysteine deficiency in these conditions.
The new study found that gluten and casein peptides released following the digestion of foods containing wheat and milk reduce cysteine uptake, "with subsequent effects on cellular redox and methylation status leading to global changes in DNA methylation and gene transcription," i.e. they increase oxidative stress and alter gene expression in such a way that may lead to imbalances/disease. In an already weakened body, the addition of glutathione-depleting and gene regulation altering-gluten/casein to the diet could further interfere with the cellular detoxification process necessary to maintain health.
Many environmental exposures, including heavy metals found in vaccines such as thimerosal (still found in the multi-dose flu shot) and aluminum, directly impact our glutathione system, significantly contributing to its depletion and subsequent ill affects on a wide range of bodily systems, most noticeably the neurological system. Perhaps the addition of a cysteine-depleting gluten and casein heavy diet represents the 'dietary straw that broke the camel's back,' adding to an already overburdened bodily toxic load caused by a tsunami of modern environmental exposures and biological incompatible synthetic 'foods' that we are presently all inundated with.
The researchers hypothesized that,
"Epigenetic programming, including CpG methylation and histone modifications, occurring during early postnatal development can influence the risk of disease in later life, and such programming may be modulated by nutritional factors such as milk and wheat, especially during the transition from a solely milk-based diet to one that includes other forms of nutrition."
CpG methylation, a form of silencing of gene expression, and histone modifications, a mechanism of altering gene expression, are forms of genetic inheritance that do not affect the primary nucleotide sequence of our DNA but, rather, influences the expression of our genes from the 'outside in,' as it were, by turning on the expression of some and turning off the expression of others. The result can be exactly the same as a 'hard coded' change in the DNA, with the critical difference that some of these 'epigenetic' changes can sometimes be reversed through dietary modification, lifestyle changes and/or removal of environmental exposures.
The study found that the digestion of casein (a major milk protein) and gliadin (a wheat-derived protein) releases proline-rich peptides with opioid activity which down-regulate cysteine uptake in cultured human neuronal and gastrointestinal (GI) epithelial cells via activation of opioid receptors. The subsequent decrease in cysteine uptake was associated "with changes in the intracellular antioxidant glutathione and the methyl donor S-adenosylmethionine." S-adenosylmethionine is a primary mechanism through which the cells of our body silence the expression of genes in a process known as methylation. When S-adenosylmethionine levels are low, it can interfere with methylation and this has been observed in many pathological states, including numerous cancers, e.g. 'global hypomethylation' is observed in cells whose cancer genes (oncogenes) have been turned on.
The experimental results, however, were complex. The peptides also induced increased methylation (gene silencing) in important gene regions associated with oxidative stress and the optimal functioning of the methylation system in general:
"Bovine and human casein-derived opioid peptides increased genome-wide DNA methylation in the transcription start site region with a potency order similar to their inhibition of cysteine uptake. Altered expression of genes involved in redox and methylation homeostasis was also observed."
The study concluded:
"These results illustrate the potential of milk- and wheat-derived peptides to exert antioxidant and epigenetic changes that may be particularly important during the postnatal transition from placental to GI nutrition. Differences between peptides derived from human and bovine milk may contribute to developmental differences between breastfed and formula-fed infants. Restricted antioxidant capacity, caused by wheat- and milk-derived opioid peptides, may predispose susceptible individuals to inflammation and systemic oxidation, partly explaining the benefits of gluten-free or casein-free diets."
These study results, while preliminary, are provocative. As we continue to unravel the role that foods play in modulating gene expression in the body – nutrigenomic considerations – we come to appreciate how profoundly foods are not only just 'our medicine,' but represent informational vectors, capable of 'informing' – literally, 'putting form into' – our bodies, down to the molecular level of affecting the expression of our genes and the proper conformational folding patterns of gene products, e.g. proteins. Eons of hard-wired biological practices like breast-feeding and the consumption of ancestral foods (which excluded grains and cow's milk for at least 99% of our evolution as homo sapiens) has produced our present-day body. When we dramatically alter the types of foods we use as 'energy' and 'material building blocks' for our bodies, we are also profoundly altering the informational backbone of our genetic and epigenetic blueprint. It may be time to remove wheat/cow's milk altogether, going back to the foods that have nourished our bodies and minds for millions of years before the advent of the agrarian revolution and animal husbandry. In fact, it is my belief that this may be required to return to optimal health, our birthright.