Wheat withdrawal

It happens in the hospital every so often: A clean-cut, law-abiding person is hospitalized for, say, pneumonia, kidney stones, knee surgery, etc.

Everything's fine until . . . they're running down the hospital hallway stark naked, screaming about snakes on the wall, accusing nurses of trying to kill him, all while yanking out IV's and monitor patches.

It's called alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal can range from tremulousness and sweatiness, all the way to delirium tremens, the full-blown form that leads to disorientation, seizures, fever, even death. Withdrawal can also be associated with a number of chronically used agents, such as sedatives/sleeping pills, pain medication/opiates, among others.

How about wheat?

I wouldn't have believed it, but after witnessing this effect countless times, I am convinced there is such a phenomenon: Wheat withdrawal.

You'll recognize it in someone who previously ate bread and other wheat flour-containing products freely, then eliminates them. This is followed by extreme cravings, usually for bread, cookies, or cake; profound fatigue; shakiness; mental fogginess; blue moods. The syndrome can last for up to one week.

Then, bam! Sufferers of wheat withdrawal report mental clarity superior to their wheat-crazed days, improved energy, decreased appetite and cravings, heightened mood, and, of course, fantastic drops in weight.

Why would removal of wheat from the diet trigger a withdrawal phenomenon? I can only speculate, but I believe that at least part of this response is due to a physical conversion from a glycogen (sugar)-burning metabolism to that of a fatty acid (fat mobilizing) metabolism. People who lived in the up-and-down cycle of craving and eating wheat constantly fed the sugar furnace for years and are enzymatically impaired in fat burning; they've been growing fat stores. Eliminating wheat deprives the body of this easy source of glycogen, forcing it to mobilize fatty acids in the fatty tissues. Sluggish at first, people feel fatigue, mental fogginess, etc. Once the enzymatic capacity for fat mobilization revs up, then these feelings dissipate.

Could it also relate to the opioid sequences apparently present in wheat? I wasn't even aware of this fact until a reader of The Heart Scan Blog, Anne, left this comment:

Wheat protein contains a number of opiod peptides which can be released during digestion. Some of these are thought to affect the central and peripheral nervous systems.

When I gave up gluten, I felt much worse for a few days. This is a very common reaction in those who stop eating gluten cold turkey.

Dr. BG provides a fascinating commentary on the addictive/opioid aspect of wheat addictions in her Animal Pharm Blog.

Whatever the mechanism, I believe it is a real phenomenon. It can, at times, be so overwhelming that about 20% of people who try to eliminate wheat find they are simply unable to do it without being incapacitated. Of course, that might be a lesson in itself: If withdrawal is so profound, it hints that there must be something very peculiar going on in the first place.

Comments (16) -

  • Jenny

    6/24/2008 5:27:00 PM |

    I almost missed this, coming between the Big Squeeze and the NIH petition (I signed and commented, BTW).  I'm very interested in this idea of yours, and have been musing on it since I joined TYP and first came across it.  But I've wondered why you singled out wheat from other carb-heavy grains/cereals, potatoes, etc. and if it's just that it makes up such an overwhelming percentage of the typical diet.  I have been low-carbing for several years, sometimes quite strictly and sometimes less so, but other than the difficulties of convenience and finding variety, and of changing ingrained (pun originally unintended, but I like it) habits, I had none of the "withdrawal" or cravings, or even the feelings of fatigue etc. when first starting, though I was sort of expecting and prepared to have them from reading the Dr.'s Eades.  Over the last couple of months, my husband is low-carbing with me  for the first time, and he finds it much more difficult than I, but mainly because he doesn't really like many vegetables, finding many that I love to be bitter, and the few he does like are primarily the starchy ones.  He may not choose to do this long term, as he says it works for him mostly because there is nothing to look forward to at meals, I'm assuming because he doesn't choose much variety.  He is sticking with it for now, because he has lost 15 pounds along with his lower back pain, has stopped snoring and is sleeping better,and he told me yesterday that he feels better than he has for years and years. He does still eat one slice of toast at breakfast, and I know he misses buns with hamburgers, etc., but even though by desire he would eat much more wheat, corn, potatoes, I don't think that he shows signs of cravings or withdrawal.  Do you think that wheat addiction, if it exists, can be easily separated from an overall craving for other carbs?  And if so, what percentage of people do you think are affected?  Do you think ethnicity plays any part?

  • Anonymous

    6/24/2008 9:52:00 PM |

    I'm a long time Atkins eater and would like to know does the gluten in eggs do the same thing as the gluten in wheat, or in other words if the problem is giving up gluten "cold turkey" if you stop eating wheat products and added eggs ( which are high in gluten ) would that take care of the problem ?

  • Anonymous

    6/24/2008 10:36:00 PM |

    Peter write a bit about this in his hyperlipid-blog.

    And here´s some references on opioid peptides from the PubMed:

    Some collected articles from dr. Reichelt on the subject:

  • Ross

    6/24/2008 11:19:00 PM |

    Several times in the past year, I have gone through a two-three day "fugue state" around endurance exercise and being better about sticking to a low-carb, high-fat diet.

    I agree that my mental state on the other side is positive, alert, and with plenty of energy, but the headaches, mental fog, bad mood, and mild depression make this a very frustrating time.  It's a particularly annoying side effect of coming back from a trip, or other occasion where I have to (or choose to) relax my dietary rules for a while and then "get back on the wagon".

    I don't know that I'd choose to describe this as "wheat withdrawal".  When I had to describe it to my wife, I said it was "adaptation to a fat-burning metabolism".

  • Dr. William Davis

    6/25/2008 4:28:00 AM |


    These observations are purely from my anecdotal experience, though large.

    Despite their anecdotal nature, I have seen this effect over and over and I do believe that somehow, for reasons I do not fully understand, wheat is unique. While all carbohydrates generate sugar effects, wheat seems to be unique in that a proportion--20%?--develop addictive patterns from it.

  • Anne

    6/25/2008 11:58:00 AM |

    Anomyous, there is no gluten in eggs. Gluten refers to the proteins in grains. All grains have gluten but the grains involved in gluten intolerance are wheat, barley and rye.

  • Anonymous

    6/27/2008 1:00:00 AM |

    As someone with a lifelong carbohydrate addiction problem, I do believe that there is something deadly about wheat, especially the combination of wheat and sugar.  There is no way that I could eat ten baked potatoes or ten rice puddings.  I could easily eat 10 donuts or 10 cookies.  

    My personal theory is that it is a brain chemistry problem in susceptible people.  I base that on the fact that during the 5 years that I took phen-fen, I could eat moderate amounts of wheat with no problem.  I truly believe that the now banned "fen" part of the drug altered my brain chemistry so that wheat was not quite as intoxicating.

  • Olga

    7/1/2008 7:38:00 PM |

    Hi Dr. Davis:

    Thanks so much for your TYP book.  It was very interesting.  Have you read the book Good Calories Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.  It's an excellent book providing a review of the relevant science from the past 150 years with respect to diet and chronic disease.  He discusses carbohydrate whithdrawl in his book.


  • Anonymous

    7/7/2008 8:37:00 PM |

    I still don't see the connection between wheat and heart disease.  What is the mechanism?  And why is it so beneficial to avoid wheat if one is not overweight and is consuming it in the form of fresh baked bread or home-made pastas versus cookies, donuts, or breakfast cereals?

  • Anonymous

    9/23/2008 6:38:00 PM |

    I'm thinking the difference in our flours is significant.  Different varieties, grown for different types of cooking/baking, contain different amounts of the substances we react to.  I think our wheat has been altered over time to grow so it's easier to harvest, store and process (and to process and store once again once it gets to the bakery and stores)and is less geared toward human consumption.  I tried spelt for a while there and had much less g.i. reaction than I do with general wheat flours.

  • crowdancer

    7/24/2009 4:21:20 PM |

    I am so glad to see a heart doctor aware of gluten addiction. I am a gluten addiction expert having seeing its impact on my own life, my family, and now my clients. The withdrawal is real and takes place on physical, emotional, and social levels. Wheat and gluten are everywhere in our culture, so care must be taken to address the entire lifestyle to ensure folks have adequate coping mechanisms and support to stay gluten free (and dairy and sugar free in most cases. An excellent book describing the opiate qualities of the gluteomorphin in gluten and the ensuing gluten withdrawal when gluten is eliminated in the newly published "The Gluten Effect" by Drs. Rick and Vikki Petersen: http://www.healthnowmedical.com/news/show_news.html?article=book_released

  • Retro Homemaker

    10/28/2009 9:57:50 AM |

    Gluten Withdrawal is SO very real. I have been gluten free for about one month now. The first week or so I felt wonderful and my intestinal symptoms had subsided. Then starting about the second week I started having what felt like wide blood sugar swings and incredible hunger. I worked at getting the good stuff in like nuts and protein and worked on not over dosing on the GF Carbs, but it has been quite difficult. I feel much more jittery and irritable that usual and it is comforting to know that this too will pass...Thank You for bringing Gluten Withdrawal out from the shadows...

  • Wendy Taylor

    5/22/2010 2:09:00 PM |

    i've recently discovered a wheat allergy and stopped. within days i felt the way i used to feel 15 years ago. that is: normal! however i'm on day 8 of no wheat and i'm having anxiety attacks today (anxiety was one of my wheat-allergy symptoms). do you think it's because i'm still withdrawing? looking forward to your response.

  • buy jeans

    11/2/2010 7:30:32 PM |

    You'll recognize it in someone who previously ate bread and other wheat flour-containing products freely, then eliminates them. This is followed by extreme cravings, usually for bread, cookies, or cake; profound fatigue; shakiness; mental fogginess; blue moods. The syndrome can last for up to one week.

  • Anonymous

    1/13/2011 2:35:58 AM |

    I gave up gluten about 14 days ago.  Felt depressed, jittery, shaky and starving!  Thought I must have some blood sugar problems.  I ended up eating four wheat cookies out of despair.  I felt very happy and not depressed after that.  Made me wonder if maybe I was having withdrawls.  Did a web search and hear I am Smile Thanks for the info.

  • camillafan

    3/6/2011 8:22:59 PM |

    Anonymous you're on to something. I gave up wheat a year ago and the benefits are great including a 25 pound weight loss, more energy, motivation, etc.,etc. Eating wheat with a meal is the trigger that causes a craving later -sometimes 2-3 days later- and giving in to the craving closes the loup. In other words eating the craving meal does not trigger another craving. So, I started wheat-free eating and for two days had cravings which I simply indulged. On the third day the cravings were gone for good. No miserable withdrawl symtoms.