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Heroin, Oxycontin, and a whole wheat bagel

Posted Jan 25 2011 8:35am
For a substantial proportion of people who remove wheat from their diet, there is a distinct and unpleasant withdrawal syndrome. Here are the comments of Heart Scan Blog reader, Scott, from Texas
Hello Dr. Davis,

I've been experimenting with diet, converging upon a Paleo type diet, but I keep running into problems. I have isolated the problem to cutting out wheat.

Sugar, rice, fruit, corn, potatoes, etc. are relatively ok to add or remove from the diet, but cutting out wheat in particular brings on a moderate headache with heavy fatigue all day long. This resembles the wheat withdrawal symptoms I found on your blog. As I write this, I'm on day 8 of wheat-free. I consume a fair variety of meat and veggies each day with a moderate amount of white rice for carbs. Perhaps a bowl of corn flakes with milk and half a bar of dark chocolate a day. I've learned from experience over the past 5 months or so that none of these foods affect the withdrawal. It's purely wheat.

My question is, what is the range of times for withdrawal symptoms that you've heard from different people? Has there been anyone who never recovered from the wheat withdrawal symptoms even after many months?

It's very tough to get work done like this, and even though my body and head feel much healthier in general, my sinuses have cleared, don't have to take a big nap after I eat, etc., I don't want to go down a path where this is the way things are going to be forever. 

People who have never experienced wheat withdrawal pooh-pooh the effect. But, for about 30% of people, wheat withdrawal is a real, palpable, and sometimes incapacitating experience.

Beyond removing an exceptionally digestible carbohydrate that yields blood sugar rises higher than nearly any other known food (due to the unique amylopectin structure of wheat-derived carbohydrate), wheat withdrawal is a form of opiate withdrawal, somewhat like stopping heroin, Oxycontin, and other opiates. Stop eating whole wheat toast for breakfast, whole grain sandwiches for lunch, or whole grain pasta for dinner, and the flow of exorphins , i.e., exogenous morphine-like compounds, stops. You experience dysphoria (sadness, unhappiness), mental "fog," inability to concentrate, fatigue, and decreased capacity to exercise. It is milder than withdrawal from prescription opiates. Unlike withdrawal from more powerful opiates like heroine, there are, thankfully, no seizures or hallucinations. There are also no deaths.

In my experience, most people get through with wheat withdrawal in about 5 days. An occasional person will struggle for as long as 4 weeks. Thankfully for Scott, I've never seen it last longer than 4 weeks. (Interestingly, people who survive the withdrawal syndrome are often prone to a peculiar re-exposure phenomenon that I will discuss in future, i.e., they get sick upon re-exposure.)

The modern dwarf mutant variant of Triticum aestivum (that our USDA urges us to eat more of) contains greater proportions of gluten proteins compared to wheat pre-1970; glutens are the source of wheat-derived exorphins.

Incidentally, a drug company should be releasing a drug in the next year that will contain naltrexone, an oral opiate blocking drug, for a weight loss indication. They claim it is a blocker of the "mesolimbic reward system." I say it's a blocker of wheat exorphins.

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