All grains contain peptides that mimic morphine or endogenous opioid substances. This is where I deal with my latest loaf craving. Get your bread-based exorphin fix here.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Schizophrenia and Bread: a half-spelt, half whole wheat loaf

 50% Whole Wheat and Whole Spelt Bread

This is a rather strangely written blog entry.  I've decided to leave it largely as-is, rather than edit it (except for a few grammatical constructs that were truly difficult to read).  Consider it an artifact of my mind while sleep-deprived.  Part of this blog is my attempt to make wholesome, wholegrain bread at home, which means fitting it into my work-home schedule.  Since work involves shift-work, working 12 hours (often at night), this means adjusting my sourdough builds to meet a demanding schedule.  What the resultant sleep deprivation does to my mind is evident in this blog entry.  I get stupid.  This was written during a bread-baking experience as I finished 2 weeks of nights, following my last 12-hour shift.
Kitchen is still ripped apart, dehumidifiers still blaring noise
I found some organic whole grain spelt flour and decided to make a bread out of it.  The result was this loaf.  It is 80% hydrated, stretched and folded in the Tartine style.  I mixed up the dough after finishing working nights, setting my timer, falling asleep for 30 minutes each time between folds, but waking up to turn the dough.

Imagine: I see some spelt flour in a store, it gives me an idea for a bread, I will myself to make the bread, the bread gets made.  Despite sleep deprivation. Despite crazy thoughts.  Insane dream-induced thoughts.  Internal words turning to nonsense, playing inside my own head but with other people's voices.  I know my thoughts are disordered.  I watch them, as if I am outside of them, but that is absurd.  My thoughts are inside me.

Sometimes I wonder what it is like to slip into madness.  Do we all cross that border, sometimes, as gently as we would slip from waking to sleep consciousness?  Would we recognize it, if we did?  Lucid dreaming is dreaming while you are aware that you are dreaming; is there lucid madness?  What sets our supposedly ordered thoughts apart from the thoughts of those with disordered brains?  What is the border between sane and insane?

I've been reading "Angelhead: a Memoir" (2000) by Greg Bottoms.  It is a story of Greg's perceptions of his brother Michael's slip into schizophrenia and the unraveling of his family due to Michael's problems.  I was hooked from the very first line: 

"My brother saw the face of God.  You never recover from a trauma like that."

Normally I don't talk about things I'm reading in this bread-baking-blog, unless they are baking texts, or scientific articles that relate directly to dough.  But in my sleeplessness this morning, reading the book with an overtired mind, I came across these lines, as Bottoms tries to come to terms with his brother's extreme mental illness:

"I once, around this time, tried to break my hand by punching a brick wall, just to feel some tangible, physical pain (I quit after spraining my thumb and ripping the flesh off my knuckles).  Years later, thinking of this act, the memory of which seemed suspect, I came across a book in a graduate-school library about mentally ill patients, usually women, for some reason, cutting themselves with razors as a way to test the bounds of their reality, to make sure they were actually here, that all this around them, this unfathomable world, was real."

As I read this, I remembered being asked the day before by a co-worker about the burns on my arms.  I explained that they were oven burns, and that I bake bread.  "I'm not a cutter," I said.  "I'm just not careful."

Now I began to wonder.  Is the fact that I am continually burning myself on the oven, when I open the 500 degree F oven door to turn my pots, really simply because I'm not careful?  Or am I burning myself (unconsciously, surely) to prove that I am here, that I can still feel something, anything, even pain (pain is French for bread, n'est pas?), so long as it isn't nothing.  "Is it another example of the toll of the stress of my job as a palliative care nurse?" I wondered.  I know that baking bread has been therapeutic to me, because I share the grief of so many people.  And blogging about it has been therapeutic because I cannot speak of anything I actually do at work (so I talk here about things that do not matter, skirting the big topics).  Is it possible that also I burn myself while baking bread as a cheap form of therapy too -- the same way a cutter will use knives to feel pain, as a way to make contact with reality?  And the bread itself is therapeutic, because it contains exorphins that I use to self-medicate.  That originally was a joke when I started this blog.  But who knows?

Who knows.  But the fact is, I barely even notice the burn marks on my arms these days.  Does that mean I'm starting to lose even the pain of my burns as a proof that I feel something besides grief?

The Schizophrenic connection to Grain
Greg Wadley's shortened thesis (2012) "A Pharmacological Model of the Neolithic Transition" (originally submitted to University of Melbourne in 1992) discusses the history of how exorphins were discovered in grains, and of course this caught my attention when I read it.

Exorphins in common foodstuffs like grain and dairy products were suspected even before they were found.  Wadley reports, "Exorphin research was motivated by the proposal of Dohan et al (1966, 1973, 1983, 1984), who suggested a link between diet and mental illness, on the basis of clinical experiments in which schizophrenia symptoms waned on a diet free of cereals and milk.  Resumption of these foods caused a relapse…"

Other scientists, interested in mental illness (e.g. schizophrenia, autism) and coeliac disease, began to find connections too.  "This work prompted Zioudrou et al (1979) to mix wheat and milk protein with human stomach proteinase and look in the resulting digest for opioids, which they identified and called "exorphins" for exogenous morphine-like material.  Gluten exorphin had potency similar to that of morphine sulphate…"

Wadley suggests that it was the exorphins in grain that gave humans the incentive to move from hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture, since they directly triggered the human reward-center.  The exorphins in grains and dairy products gave the earliest human horticulturalists the incentive to farm.  The rest is history -- literally, the history of human civilization, human culture, human technology, and human reason.

I think that this theory could also be used to temper Jayne's theory of the emergence of human consciousness from the breakdown of the bicameral mind.  I believe exorphins in food eventually gave humans a new form of consciousness, one where internal voices (to a bicameral mind, quite inchoate) become personalized and identified with.  In addition, the new internal spaces opened up by the ingestion of the drug-laced everyday foods enabled individuals to achieve new insights, and a  will to accomplish what they could dream, and even the appropriate time to think.

It's a theory.

And I'm babbling ideas.  I'm sleep deprived.  I'm folding my dough while I write this.  Later I'll edit it, but the logical connections I saw when I originally wrote it won't be there any longer.  I'll only have the bread.  

The bread, at least, is real.

I get the bread.  The world (through the magic of Internet blogging) gets my ideas that slip around madness like the caduceus snake.

The Sourdough connection
While surfing around for material related to exorphins, I found a 2010 U.S. patent held by Brønstad, Reichelt and Slinde, of Norway (Composition for lowering the concentration of intestinal pathogenic peptides), which consists of some probiotic bacteria that could be ingested that would use enzymes (peptidases) to break down pathogenic peptides like exorphins.

In other words, if you can't digest things like exorphins, and when you eat things that contain them you develop symptoms of schizophrenia or autism, Brønstad et al. would like to give you their invention, which will break apart those proteins that are causing you trouble, and (in theory) you will recover.  They want you to take some probiotics -- specifically, some Lactic Acid Bacteria that provide you with the peptidase enzymes that would render those proteins harmless to you.

Brønstad et al point out that when you eat bread, the enzymes in the digestive tract begin to break gluten down -- and indeed, it is due to the proteinases of the gut that the exorphins appear in the first place.  They were isolated in the laboratory by taking gluten and  "digesting" it with pepsin, HCL, trypsin, chymotrypsin, thermolysin and other enzymes.  What Brønstad wants to do is break it down even further, so that the molecules no longer fit in the opioid receptors.  According to their patent, they have determined that the following LAB can provide these peptidases:

  • Lactobacillus helveticus 
  • Lactobacillus acidophilus 
  • Lactobacillus lactis
  • Lactobacillus casei 
  • Lactobacillus crispatus 
  • Lactobacillus paracasei 
  • Lactobacillus fermentum
  • Lactobacillus plantarum

That smells like sourdough to me.

Imagine a bread that makes you sane.  Instead of one that drives you crazy.

Overproofed Loaves: What constitutes proof of any given theory?
At this point in the story, I stopped my folding of dough and forming of loaves, and blogging of half-baked sleep-deprived thoughts on madness.  I put the shapes of dough in the bannetons, covered them, and set my timer for 3 1/2 hours.  I fell asleep.  

"Dead to the world" is an old saying of deep sleep, and it might just as well apply to madness, when sensory inputs from the world are scrambled and return no appropriate motor outputs.  "Short is your life, and long are you dead," wrote Rudolf Tarnow in his colloquial Plattdeutsch.  He was mimicking the classic of Hippocrates who wrote that "Life is short, art is long" (death is longer, though).  But if indeed Tarnow made that connection, that means he equates death to art.  Sleep too is an art form of sorts.  They say that the French call orgasm a little death.  Every orgasm, or just the best ones?  Is death the ultimate orgasm?  With very little sleep, my thoughts are jumbled, tumbling one after another, sluggish and stupid tumblers, fat lords a-leaping.

I slept right through the alarm, not hearing a thing.  Five hours later I awoke, groggy and sluggish, to overproofed dough that needed to be baked a couple of hours previous, and I immediately turned on the oven.  My wife came up the stairs and told me that in one hour we had to be somewhere for dinner with friends.  

I insisted that I couldn't leave until the loaves were baked.  

And the loaves deflated on hitting the pan, and saw no oven rise.

The swirly design on this loaf reminds me of those psychedelic optical illusions of the 60's
which I equate with madness induced by LSD trips

The loaves are a bit sour.  Otherwise they taste okay.  There was a lot of proteolysis happening, so the gluten is way overdeveloped.  This probably means it is easier to digest, however.  And maybe those exorphins have broken down into harmless amino acids.

As I catch up on sleep, and sanity returns, the bread becomes my touchstone to reality.

Notes to Myself
  • Your patients come first. Get some sleep.
  • Your family comes first. Get some sleep.
  • Your friends come first. Set the dough aside.
  • How important have my loaves become to me, and why do I need them so?
  • Do your breads make you sane, or do they make you crazy?  How would you know?  What would constitute proof?


  1. When I'm making bread with spelt I usually put dough or/and shaped loaves dough into the refrigerator. It helps : I don't have to worry about their shape and I can sleep or doing something more important to me than waiting until dough/loaf is ready.

  2. Good idea. If I wasn't so sleep-deprived when I made this bread, this solution might have occurred to me too.

    All dough can benefit from a longer fermentation in the fridge, at least at the proofing stage. I personally don't like trying to get cold dough to room temperature before stretching and folding it.

    I am curious about why you think spelt in particular needs it. It certainly feels and tastes and looks slightly different than other wheat, but it has gluten, it actually has a high protein content. But the entire texture is different, and you are right, spelt doesn't seem to hold a bread's shape that well at room temperature. Not sure why that is. More cartoon question marks appearing over my head.