Another outtake: Sitosomania

If psychiatrists were to come up with a word for obsession with wheat, it would be sitosomania.

“Sitos” is the transliteration of the Greek word for “wheat.” As kleptomania means being unable to resist the temptation to steal, and flagellomania refers to a passion for flogging and caning, so sitosomania drives the relentless pursuit of wheat consumption.

There is no doubt: For some people, wheat is addictive to the point of creating obsession. I still get rap music shivers when a well-dressed, suburban soccer mom desperately confesses to me, “Wheat is my crack!” Yes, indeed: Sitosomania at work.

Many people with wheat addictions just know they have a wheat addiction. They already understand, even before I tell them, that wheat provides a little “high” and, when the flow of pasta and Danish stops, an uncomfortable “withdrawal” follows. These are the same people who crumble in shame and horror when I advise them that many of their health problems are wheat-related, fully aware of what is in store when their next “hit” is missed.

Eat wheat, feel good. Lack wheat, feel bad . . . real bad. That’s called “withdrawal.”

Recall that, in the gastrointestinal tract, wheat gluten is digested into polypeptide fragments called “exorphins” that cross the blood-brain barrier to exert morphine-like brain effects, effects that can be neatly blocked with opiate-blocking drugs like naloxone, a drug usually reserved for injection into drug addicts overdosed on heroine. Naloxone has the interesting effect of reducing calorie intake, such as in binge eaters. Most of the reduced calories are those from wheat products.

Can there be any remaining doubt that wheat works on your brain?

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Comments & Feedback...

  1. Yep, my pudgy before picture would be right next to the fictional nutritional dictionary description of “sitosomania.” Past tense, now. FYI, Dr. Davis, the USDA visited us both yesterday. Love to be a fly on the wall in that office.

    • Hi, James–

      That’s really, really creepy.

      I’m not surprised if the Wheat Trade Group trolls are prowling around; that’s part of the game they’re playing. But the USDA? What the heck are they up to?

  2. Megan

    I’m eager to get on board with the wheat-free lifestyle, and I’m relying a lot on this blog. And that’s why I’m discouraged by passages like the next-to-last paragraph of this posting. Maybe I have wheat brain, because I cannot wrap my brain around this statement. Can anyone translate it into English?

    Going forward, is it possible for the poster to decipher any dense and confusing passages? Understanding the concepts is key to getting something from this blog, and from the lifestyle as a whole.


    • Lee Asbell

      Have you read the book? It explains this in greater detail. Don’t be intimidated by the science – the good doctor makes it pretty straightforward stuff.

      • Megan

        I am buying it today! I’m sure it will help. But I’m noy sure I need to understand this on a molecular level.

    • Uncephalized

      “Recall that, in the gastrointestinal tract, wheat gluten is digested into polypeptide fragments called “exorphins”…”

      When you eat wheat, you are eating a protein called gluten, which is a part of wheat. Your digestion breaks down this protein into fragments (polypeptides) that can be absorbed by the gut lining into the blood. The specific fragments that gluten breaks down into are called “exorphins”.

      “…that cross the blood-brain barrier to exert morphine-like brain effects, effects that can be neatly blocked with opiate-blocking drugs like naloxone, a drug usually reserved for injection into drug addicts overdosed on heroine.”

      These exorphins are similar in function to opiates like morphine, and like opiates can cross the blood-brain barrier (the “wall” that protects your very-sensitive brain from things in your blood that can damage it). Like morphine or heroin, exorphins cause highs and addiction. They are also close enough in structure to opiates that a certain drug, Naloxone, which was developed to block the effects of opiates on the brain, also blocks the effects of gluten exorphins.

      “Naloxone has the interesting effect of reducing calorie intake, such as in binge eaters. Most of the reduced calories are those from wheat products.”

      This drug that was developed to block opiates also happens to make people eat less, but not of all different foods. It mostly makes people eat less wheat, in the same way that it makes people crave opiates less. This adds further evidence that eating wheat causes addiction in a similar way and as opiates do.

      Does that make it a bit clearer?

    • Yes, these are meant to be “outtakes,” kind of like watching the missteps and flubs that are taken out of a movie. I would want to judge the movie Titanic by watching Leonardo DiCaprio trip over the threshold of his stateroom!

  3. Elaine Sukava

    Hi Dr. Davis
    I have read ‘Wheat Belly’ from cover to cover and have talked to a number of people about it. It really helped that you were on CBC radio; many heard the interview. Living in Canada’s ‘bread basket’ here in Saskatchewan, it is interesting to listen to others as they consider a wheat-free life, both as individuals and also in terms of the economy.
    I also work within the province as a curriculum developer in Education for Sustainable Development as part of UNESCO’s international decade for ESD, with local, organic food production and food security, and lastly with curriculum around cancer and chronic disease prevention. All these efforts have led me to learning about foodways of our ancestors, and flash forward, my life has changed. Before hearing about ‘Wheat Belly” I already experienced huge improvements in my health; I knew that my body reacts badly to grains (osteoarthritis inflammation and acid reflux), and having lived grain-free for 5 months has improved my health in every dimension. ‘Wheat Belly’ helped me dig more deeply into the ‘why’, able to understand why my body, mind, spirit and intellect have changed.
    An interesting conversation over supper with friends yesterday centred on your book, and the fact that you are very brave to put the message ‘out there’, countering the comfy position the grain-based food industry (actually ‘food-like substance’ industry) has carved itself in the corporate world, the 1% that Occupy Wall Street talk about.
    Your bravery is inspiring!
    Elaine S.

    • How encouraging, Elaine!

      As you read the stories here and in social media like the Wheat Belly Facebook page, in addition to what you observe, you quickly see that this is no small matter: Lives are literally being turned around by this incredibly simple change in food choice.

      No purging, cleansing remedies, expensive prepared meals required–just no wheat.

      I am very encouraged by the hearing the Wheat Belly argument is receiving in Canada, given the nation’s reliance on wheat export.

  4. Joanna

    Hi Dr. Davis,

    I can totally relate with your patients who feel they are addicted to wheat because I was there for years. Since reading your book I’ve totally given it up and I’d like to share a secret I found that really helped me – substitution. I found that the thought of totally giving up baked goods and pasta seemed impossible, but with a bit of research and experimentation I’ve found some wonderful alternatives that taste just as good if not better.

    First has to be almond flour. This is such wonderful stuff. There are tons of websites with recipes and I now eat almond flour bread and muffins and cakes and don’t miss wheat flour ones at all. And another plus, when I have almond flour bread and muffins a serving fills me up – not like with wheat when I could inhale a whole loaf. For people who don’t like to cook, let me just say you can make almond flour quick bread which tastes great, takes hardly any time, and involves no yeast.

    My second secret are shiritaki noodles. These are available online if you can’t get them at your local health food store and work wonderfully in all my pasta recipes. To begin with you have to get over the fact that they are different, and when you first open the package and drain the liquid you’ll probably think “God, what is this stuff!” but you just need to get over this. Rinse really well with warm water, then add to whatever you want. One major plus is you no longer have to go through the hassle of cooking pasta. I add them to stir-frys and eat them with my favourite pasta sauces and again do not miss wheat at all.

    I think without these substitutions it would have been a lot harder so I hope others who are having similar problems will try thinking “substitute” instead of “give up”. It makes all the difference!

    • Hi, JOanna–

      This was a lesson I had to learn, also, just as you did. It’s fascinating how many of us have traveled similar paths and bump into each other at our destination!

      I just had the last piece of coconut flour-based carrot cake and I’m eager to get started on another recipe. I’m thinking about lemon cheesecake cupcakes . . .

      • Joanna

        Love your carrot cake recipe … and the chocolate biscotti are to die for. Can’t wait for the lemon cheesecake cupcakes. Remind me again what we are we missing giving up wheat …….???

        • Thanks, Joanna!

          I’m neither a chef nor a gourmet, just someone trying to understand a better, yet tasty, way to eat.

          I made the biscotti this past weekend and it was gobbled up within 48 hours by my family, no wheat bellies in sight.

  5. Lee Boyer

    Well…I am on day two and feel fine so far. Made some Chicken Parmesan last night all Gluten/Wheat Free and it was fantastic! I used ground flax for the breading with some spices and it worked perfect. This is do-able!!! Of course, this is just my second day.

  6. Uncephalized

    Dr. Davis, you mention that the caloric reduction from Naloxone is “mostly” from wheat. Can you quantify that and explain (if you know) what other foods are typically reduced? Is it mainly because you tend not to eat pure wheat, and eating wheat entails eating whatever is mixed in with it, so reducing the wheat reduces its companion foods? I ask because I am interested to know if a significant portion of the remainder is typically from dairy, which I have read can form exorphins and become addictive in a similar fashion to wheat. Does Naloxone block dairy exorphins as well?

    • Hi, Unceph–

      Unfortunately, the studies that examined this question looked more at type of food, rather an actual breakdown. Study participants (in several studies) ate less foods like pie, cake, and cookies. It means, of course, that sugars and fats were reduced, as well as wheat, though researchers focused more on the sugar and fats, thinking that the wheat flour was benign.

      Dairy did not play a significant role. It does not mean, of course, that it wouldn’t if looked at. This was just not looked at. However, judging from the “caseomorphin” that derives from casein, there could be a plausible basis for reduced dairy consumption.

  7. Wendie

    Today is Day 14 Wheat Free and in spite of how well I’m doing and a modest weight loss (3 lbs, I was hoping for more!) I almost caved last night. The craving for bread & crackers was so strong it was overwhelming. I nearly opened and ate an entire can of chickpeas! Then I remembered I had some avocado and “Mary’s Gone Crackers” in the house, but I was trying not to eat them b/c I’m trying to lower my carb intake (Im averaging 30-40 grams) in order to facilitate weight loss. I was surprised by how strong and sudden the urge was. The only thing I can think of that I did differently was I had a stick of chewing gum (sugar free, contains aspartame) which I think may also have given me a vicious headache for several hours.
    I have two questions:
    1) Is anyone else trying to lose weight and if so how well are you doing and how many carbs (nut products, avocados & dairy) do you take in daily?
    2) Has anyone found a gum substitute without Aspartame for this garlic breath?!!
    Lastly, I must rave about Alessi All natural & low carb tomato sauce! it totally rocks! :0) Wendie

    • Julie

      Hi Wendy,
      Most stick gums are dusted with flour to stop them sticking together. That’s probably where you got your micro ‘hit’ from and where your craving suddenly blew up from.
      I am now an avid label reader and will even ask for labels from boxes in restaurants before ordering food.
      Today I had a shock, I picked up a jar of mayonnaise, expecting, oil, vinegar, egg and preservatives. But there for all the world to see was WHEAT. I double checked and realised that I had picked up the low calorie version, which must use the wheat as a thickener, as the standard jar had no wheat.

    • @Wendie: Just google ‘stevia gum’ or ‘xylitol gum’ and you’ll get a bunch of results, the actual gum might be a little harder to find in the stores depending on the number of vitamin and health food stores int your area.

    • Hi, Wendie–

      I see that I should address thyroid issues here to help people who are either not obtaining the weight loss they desire, or are not losing at all.

      If you 1) eliminate wheat, and then 2) limit carbs sharply, weight loss should–should–proceed fairly quickly. Barring any obvious booby traps like gluten-free foods, thyroid dysfunction is the first issue to consider, especially iodine sufficiency and free T3 status.

  8. Julie

    Your other questions, I am trying to lose weight and I have between 30 and 70 grams of carbs (total weight, no adjustment made for fibre content) a day. When I go out for the day (not taking a packed lunch), it usually jumps to 100grams as finding low carb meals and snacks is harder when eating out. I usually resort to fruit or nuts or a home made wheat free cake (squashed in a zip lock bag in my handbag) for snacks and end up having potatoes for lunch or dinner as salads can be a bit boring after a while.
    My breakfast at the moment tends to be a handful or two of nuts with a few raisins (maybe 10 raisins).
    My diary is as much cheese as I fancy, usually full fat. Milk has dropped dramatically from a litre (about 3.5 cups) a day of skimmed to less than a cup of full fat 3.5%. Which eerily, works out at the same amount of fat a day, but much less lactose and sugars. Which I hadn’t planned on, it just worked out that way, I am drinking a lot more fruit tea’s now instead of tea with milk.
    Avocado is too expensive here (England) for me to eat it more than once or twice a month.

  9. Dr. Davis,

    I am working on a post about bipolar disorder (which I have) and wheat/gluten (which I now don’t :-). I found a relevant Pub Med article here:

    The Results/Conclusions are:

    Individuals with bipolar disorder had increased levels of IgG antibodies to gliadin compared with controls in multivariate analyses. We also found evidence of increased levels of antibodies to deamidated gliadin in the bipolar disorder population. The levels of IgA class antigliadin antibodies and antibodies to tTG did not differ significantly between groups. There was also not a significant difference between groups in the number of persons who were classified as having levels of antibodies to deamidated gliadin or tTG that are predictive of celiac disease.
    Individuals with bipolar disorder have increased levels of IgG antibodies to gliadin. However, such antibody increase is not accompanied by an elevation in IgA antibodies to gliadin or the celiac disease-associated antibodies against deamidated gliadin and tTG. These results warrant further detailed examination of the molecular specificity and pattern of reactivity of the antibody response to gluten antigens in bipolar disorder.

    Could you unpack this a little? I guessed that wheat had a part in my episodes, because of your passing along the schizophrenia/wheat connection in the book. This Pub Med article is a tantalizing new bit of information, and I’d like to understand it better. Thanks.

    • Hi, James–

      I, too, am convinced of a connection between wheat and bipolar disorder. But, as this study suggests, the link between bipolar disorder and wheat is likely not driven by gluten antibodies, at least not to a substantial degree. I suspect it is via gliadin degradation to the polypeptides that gain access to your brain.

      An interesting experiment: Administer naltrexone to people with bipolar disorder and observe whether wheat can still trigger the highs or lows. To my knowledge, this has not been done.

      Of course, given the extraordinary range of components in wheat beyond gluten and gliadin, there could be something else entire in wheat that influences bipolar. You are seeing just how sketchy the science here is, despite some very persuasive anecdotal experiences such as yours.

  10. Dave

    Before I went on a low-carb/paleo/wheat-free diet I used to enjoy pizza and big bowls of mostaccioli . “Enjoy” is an understatement. I could eat a whole large pizza with ease, and the only thing that stopped me was 1) eating all of it, or 2) the pain got too intense for me. I finally figured out that something in that food was my drug of choice, and the common denominator was wheat.

    After going wheat free my digestion cleared up (no more diarrhea), my usual upper respiratory infections went away, and I lost 25 pounds.

    One word of advice: once you go wheat free for a while, do NOT eat any again! I had some pasta after being wheat free for over a year, and the allergic effects (puffy face, scratchy throat, difficulty swallowing) were scary!

    • That’s excellent, Dave! Set yourself free from this thing.

      Note that pasta is usually made from durum wheat, a form of wheat with the AB genome, thereby lacking the D genome of bread wheat. Yet pasta still has many of these same effects. I mention this because spelt, kamut, and emmer are also, like pasta, AB forms, a question that has come up many times.

      In other words, mostaccioli can do everything that bread can.

  11. Linda Leath

    Hello Dr. Davis and all,
    I have been wheat free for about three weeks now. I have lost a modest amount of weight, and my belly has gone down. The problem is I contracted what I think is a cold. I really “hit a wall” about 4 days out, lethargy that felt like total exhaustion , grumpiness, total brain fog with a killer headache, The worst of it lasted about four days. This withdrawal has abated somewhat, but I still do not feel 100%. Any suggestions? Or do I just tough it out? I am not tempted to eat wheat again, I would just like to get the energy back.
    Thanks in advance for any replies

    • HI, Linda–

      This would be very odd to blame on wheat withdrawal. It makes me wonder if something else is going on, e.g., a virus.

      A “recrudescence” of wheat withdrawal is virtually unheard of. I suppose not impossible, just unlikely. Let us know what comes of it.