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.
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.
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