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A provocative, though still largely under appreciated study titled, "Parallels between Pathogens and Gluten Peptides in Celiac Sprue," published in PLoS in 2008 proposed a radically new definition of pathogen be employed to understand the extensively documented harm that the consumption of wheat is capable of doing to human physiology. The new theory proposes that we move beyond initial 19th century formulation of pathogens as exogenous agents (e.g. bacteria, viruses, fungi) capable of causing disease in susceptible organisms to include dietary exposure to wheat peptides within genetically susceptible susceptible individuals.
A New Definition of Pathogenicity That Includes Wheat
Obviously, wheat proteins are not capable of self-replication within a susceptible host, as is the case for viruses or bacteria, which makes the new definition different from the conventional view that a pathogen must be a self-replicating infectious organism. With the recent discovery of the pathogenicity of prions, that is, misfolded proteins capable of transferring their pathogenic shape to other proteins they are in contact with, in conditions like mad cow disease, there is already a clear precedent for redefining our concept of both what a pathogen is and the definition of pathogenicity as a whole.
The study offers the following revised definition:
"In the broadest sense, a pathogen can be defined as any substance capable of causing disease . Under this definition, pathogens need not be replicative, and could include toxins, food allergens, and dietary antigens responsible for chronic inflammation, such as gluten peptides in the context of celiac sprue."Before we delve deeper into their definition and explanation, it is interesting that we came to a similar conclusion in a previous article titled, "Opening Pandora's Box: The Critical Role of Wheat Lectin In Human Disease," where the wheat lectin, known as wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), was identified as exhibiting pathogenic characteristics similar to viruses like influenza.
Wheat Lectin Exhibits Pathogenicity Similar To Viruses
Wheat lectin is now understood primarily as a biochemical defense mechanism employed by wheat to defend against predation. Wheat lectin is a component of wheat still largely overlooked when it comes to the conventional perspective on wheat's primary mechanisms of toxicity, which fixate almost exclusively on the antigenic and molecular mimicry generating properties of the 23,000+ proteins identified in the wheat proteome (the total number of proteins the wheat genome is capable of coding for).
When we open ourselves to the idea that wheat, like most organisms that have evolved defense mechanisms to fight off predators, produces wheat lectin as an "invisible thorn," we begin to understand how this highly prized – if not also glorified food – may not be entirely compliant with our designs upon it to make it a primary source of nutrition. Excerpted from "Opening Pandora's Bread Box":
"WGA may share pathogenic similarities with certain Viruses: There are a number of interesting similarities between WGA lectin and viruses. Both viral particles and WGA lectin are several orders of magnitude smaller than the cells they enter, and subsequent to their attachment to the cell membrane, are taken into the cell through a process of endocytosis. Both influenza and WGA gain entry through the sialic acid coatings of our mucous membranes (glycocalyx) each with a sialic acid-specific substance: the neuraminidase enzyme for viruses and the sialic acid binding sites on the WGA lectin. Once the influenza virus and WGA lectin have made their way into wider circulation in the host body, they are both capable of blurring the line in the host between self and non-self. Influenza accomplishes this by incorporating itself into the genetic material of our cells and taking over the protein production machinery to replicate itself, with the result that our immune system must attack its own virally transformed cell, to clear the infection. Studies done with herpes simplex virus have shown that WGA has the capacity to block viral infectivity through competitively binding to the same cell surface receptors, indicating that they may effect cells through very similar pathways. WGA has the capability of influencing the gene expression of certain cells, e.g. mitogenic/anti-mitogenic action, and like other lectins associated with autoimmunity, e.g. soy lectin, and viruses like Epstein-Barr virus, WGA may be capable of causing certain cells to exhibit class 2 human leukocyte antigens (HLA-II), which mark them for autoimmune destruction by white blood cells. Since human antibodies to WGA have been shown to cross-react with other proteins, even if WGA does not directly transform the phenotype of our cells into "other," the resulting cross-reactivity of antibodies to WGA with our own cells would nonetheless result in autoimmunity."If wheat is "pre-loaded" with pathogenic lectins, designed to produce responses in our physiology that send a "do not eat me" signal or at least, "you can eat me, but I'm putting up a fight" signal, and if these lectins behave in ways that overlap with other clearly defined pathogens, perhaps it is not that far of a stretch to consider its effects in our body as pathogen-like.
The Similarities Between Wheat Exposure and Exposure to Conventional Pathogens
The study drew many parallels between gluten's modes of toxicity to celiac sprue patients and those of more classically defined infectious pathogens. The study compared the physiological response to gluten peptides to pathogenic exposures in the following ways:
- Exposure and susceptibility to pathogens: Gluten peptides are compared to H. pylori and other high prevalence, low virulence pathogens in that they are ubiquitous, but only cause disease in susceptible individuals. The main difference is that infectious organisms can be passed directly, horizontally from person to person, or vertically from mother to child at birth, whereas dietary or accidental ingestion are the only routes of exposure for gluten. It should be noted that gluten-degrading bacteria have been identified in the human gut, indicating that susceptibility to gluten toxicity may in part be determined by the presence or absence of vertically transmitted bacteria.
- Evasion of host defenses: In order to infect the new host, the gut lumen (inner surface) and its defenses must be breached. Some of these microorganisms include acidic pH (stomach), gastrointestinal proteases, antimicrobial peptides and Secretory IgA. In the case of gluten peptides, gastrointestinal peptides are the main defense. These degrade most dietary proteins into single, di-, and tri-peptides usually too small to elicit an immune response, which are absorbed across the mucosa as nutrients. Infectious organisms are equipped with various known and unknown mechanisms that evade host defenses. "Immunotoxic gluten peptides have certain unusual structural features that allow them to survive the harsh proteolytic conditions of the gastrointestinal tract and thereby interact extensively with the mucosal lining of the small intestine."
- Invasion across intestinal epithelium. These gluten peptides "are known to invade across epithelial barriers intact to access the underlying gut-associated lymphoid tissue. One of the mechanisms identified is the up-regulation of zonulin, a peptide involved in keeping the junctures between epithelial cells in the lumen of the intestine impermeable to entry from intestinal contents. Wheat gliadin has been found to up-regulate zonulin, resulting in increased intestinal permeability and hence entry of not only gluten peptides but also immunotoxic bacteria and bacterial components in the gut, such as lipopolysaccharide, a powerfully immunotoxic and inflammatory substance."
- Activation to pathogenic form. The degradation of gluten peptides precipitate a T cell-mediated immune reaction involving both innate and adaptive responses that lead to chronic inflammation of the small intestine. We discussed the universality of the problem in our previous article: Research Proves Wheat Can Cause Harm To Everyone's Intestines.
- Analogy with Antibiotics: Complete elimination of wheat (immunotoxic gluten peptides) from the celiac diet results in full remission. Reintroduction of gluten peptides results in relapse. "Therefore, in analogy with antibiotics, orally administered proteases that reduce the host's exposure to the immunotoxin by accelerating gluten peptide destruction have considerable therapeutic potential."
- Initiation of deleterious immune response. Wheat causes the immune system to turn against itself. Both by activating innate and adaptive immune response elements, and by blurring the line between 'self' and 'other' by making it possible for an influx of thousands of non-self peptides which share homology (identical amino acid sequences) with both pathogens (e.g. 33-mer, a component of whooping cough pathogen pertussis, pertactin) and self-structures (e.g. brain proteins). By compromising immunity, it can make possible for a wide range of 'opportunistic' health conditions to take hold, despite being behind the scenes and only subclinically involved in producing the conditions ripe for disease.
It is truly remarkable to consider how radically the mainstream perception of wheat's role in human health and disease has shifted in only the past 5 years. Our research indexing project has already identified over 200 adverse health effects linked to its consumption, making it one of the most solid, evidence-based non-healthy foods commonly consumed throughout the world.
While the lay public engages in a veritable feeding frenzy over gluten free products, now a multi-billion dollar industry, the research community is only beginning to grasp that perhaps, instead of "blaming the victim" and looking for an answer to the wide range of adverse health effects it produces within the human genome, we must start understanding celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity not as an unhealthy reaction to an intrinsically healthy food, but rather as an adaptive reaction to an intrinsically unhealthy or toxic 'food.'
Of course, if wheat can rightfully be described as a pathogen, the answer is not to wait for a vaccine to be developed against it (and yes, they have anti-celiac disease vaccines in development), but rather to avoid exposure to it through revised dietary recommendations. Wheat and gluten avoidance can become the solution to a wide range of health problems as easy as choosing to not put it in your mouth. Is it really that hard to abstain from the croissant or baguette staring at you longingly? Yes, even the author admits, it is. But your health comes first. So don't even think about it.
Sayer Ji is the founder of GreenMedInfo.com, an author, educator, Steering Committee Member of the Global GMO Free Coalition (GGFC), and an advisory board member of the National Health Federation.