The Truth About Wheat Addiction

The following are two posts from the Heart Scan Blog on wheat addiction and its subsequent withdrawal. For most of you, giving up grains has and always will be super easy. For the rest of us, we struggle with withdrawal because of the addictive properties of wheat.

“I can’t do it”

Anne sat across from me, bent over and sobbing.

“I can’t do it. I just can’t do it! I cut out the breads and pasta for two days, then I start dreaming about it!

“And my husband is no help. He knows I’m trying to get off the wheat. But then he brings home a bunch of Danish or something. He knows I can’t help myself!”

Having asked hundreds of people to completely remove wheat from their diet, I witness 30% of them go through such emotional and physical turmoil, not uncommonly to the point of tears. For about 10-20% of people who try, it is as hard as quitting cigarettes.

Make no mistake about it: For many people, wheat is addictive. It meets all the criteria for an addictive product: People crave it, consuming it creates a desire for more, lacking it triggers a withdrawal phenomenon. If wheat were illegal, there would surely be an active underground trafficking illicit bagels and pretzels.

Withdrawal consists of fatigue and mental fogginess that usually lasts 5-7 days. Just like quitting smoking, wheat withdrawal is harmless but no less profound in severity.

People who lack an addictive relationship with wheat usually have no idea what I’m talking about. To them, wheat is simply a grain, no different than oats.

But wheat addicts immediately know who they are. They are the ones who can’t resist the warm dinner rolls served at the Italian restaurant, need to include something made of wheat at every meal, and crave it every 2 hours (matching the cycle of blood sugar peaks and valleys, the “valley” triggering the craving). When they stop the flow of immediately-released glucose that comes from wheat (with blood sugar peaks that occur higher and faster than table sugar), irresistible cravings kick in. Then watch out: They’ll bite your hand off if you reach for that roll before they do.

Break the cycle and the body is confused: Where’s the sugar? The body is accustomed to receiving a constant flow of easily-digested sugars.

Once the constant influx of sugars ceases, it takes 5-7 days for metabolism to shift towards fat mobilization as a source of energy. But along with fat mobilization comes a shrinking tummy, reducing the characteristic wheat belly.

If you try to quit smoking, you’ve got “crutches” like nicotine patches and gum, Zyban, Chantix, hypnosis, and group therapy sessions. If you try and quit wheat, what have you got? Nothing, to my knowledge. Nothing but sheer will power to divorce yourself from this enormously destructive, diabetes-causing, small LDL-increasing, inflammation-provoking, and addictive substance.

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.