Do you have food poisoning?

Okay. Now it’s time to fess up.

Did you have a wheat indulgence–intentional or inadvertent–over the Christmas holiday? I’m now hearing about the aftermath of those “Oh, come on, just one gingerbread cookie!” indulgences. Or the wheat flour exposure from the “gluten-free” pie or cake made by your well-intended aunt or daughter-in-law.

People tell me about their cramps, gas, and diarrhea that started within minutes to hours afterwards, gastrointestinal effects that usually last 24-48 hours, occasionally longer. And it’s often a crampy, watery diarrhea, similar to that experienced after tainted chicken or contaminated produce. Yes, the cramps, gas, and diarrhea that result from wheat re-exposure after a period of abstinence resembles food poisoning.

Why would an innocent gingerbread cookie or slice of rhubarb pie cause such gastrointestinal disruption, no E coli or salmonella in sight?

Surprisingly, this exceptionally common situation has not been studied. So I’ll have to speculate. It might be the lectin of wheat, wheat germ agglutinin, that is indigestible. Wheat germ agglutinin enters the small intestine and, in effect, “unlocks” the normal intestinal barriers to foreign substances, causing intestinal “leakiness.” While it allows the entry of foreign substances into the bloodstream (leading to inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis), could there also be increased irritation and fluid loss that results in the food poisoning-like syndrome?

Wheat also disrupts the normal intestinal bacteria that reside in your small intestine and colon. Wheat-consuming people develop different bacteria in their gut, e.g., fewer bifidobacteria and more clostridia species. The wheat-free therefore experience a shift in gut bacteria over time. Does reintroduction of wheat cause abrupt disruption of intestinal bacteria, unleashing a barrage of bacterial breakdown products?

Whatever the cause, the cause-effect association is clear: Have a wheat indulgence after being wheat-free, and be prepared for a couple of days of intestinal turmoil not unlike having a hamburger at the fast food joint handled by the kid who failed to wash his hands after using the toilet. Just picture that in your mind the next time you are contemplating whether the pretzel or cookie is worth it.

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Comments & Feedback...

  1. Amy Crain

    I scanned through all the follow up posts in regards to this article..but just in case the blonde in me is missing something..can anyone clarify in laymen’s terms why it is that your body tolerates wheat for so long..although you experience : Dizzyness, sleep apnea, weight, tired all the time, depression, thyroid, heart irregularities, allergies and asthma, and then you eliminate wheat, and 7 days later, you eat something with wheat, and have to stay near a bathroom? Why hasn’t the wheat ever caused this to happen until it’s out of your system, only for a week? I’m posting this for a friend who is experiencing this. I have only experienced this once myself, and I’m remaining gluten free, but I want to be able to encourage my friend to remain gluten free even while going through this negative reaction. I told her the elimination and the release of the negative affects will far outway the “food poison” effects she’s experiencing when a little wheat gets back in. Thanks for any feedback!

    • James

      As far as I can tell, when you grow up with wheat products, you become “tolerant”. That is NOT to say immune, just tolerant. And all the discomfort are anyway attributed to something else. I always wondered my digestion was so chaotic, sometimes it would be fine and the next, it would be weird. There seemed to be no logic. Same with energy levels, etc, etc. Removing wheat 100% explained a few things. I ate wheat only once by accident 3 months after my weaning and I felt bad for 3 days … no longer tolerant, that’s what it is!

    • Drae

      Amy – the best explanation I’ve read was an analogy to two bathtubs. One is full of mud, and when you throw a little more mud into it, you don’t really see the problem. Now, the other tub is full of pristine water. You toss some mud into that tub and you will certainly notice!

      Honestly, I think the issue is you don’t know how poorly your body is running while on toxic foods until you switch your fuels to good foods. Then when you go back to the toxic fuel, you can feel it, and usually pretty quickly. I would think the negative reaction would be enough to keep your friend from wanting to go back to gluten, because that is the test. You go back to it and you feel like garbage – then you have a wheat problem! If your friend needs more support, then send them here!

      Hope this helps.

    • Boundless

      There are probably many reasons why re-exposure reactions are acute. Another one that comes to mind is intestinal flora. Drop wheat. Get a nice healthy population, then poison ’em with wheat and replace them with an unhealthy population. Bam.

      At least a couple of users here have complained that they weren’t adequately warned that re-exposure reactions can be (or at least appear to be) more severe than the original afflictions. I had some remarks about that in earlier responses.

      But I can see the next Big Grain(TM) ad campaign theme now …
      “If you’re planning to kill yourself by eating our product, the process will be slightly less unpleasant if you never ever quit eating our product for any significant length of time. We own you, and don’t ever forget it.”

    • Dr. Davis

      Very common, I’m afraid, Amy.

      But the world of both wheat withdrawal and the common re-exposure reactions are very poorly charted out. There is probably a form of tolerance generated to the toxic effects of several wheat components that develops with long-term consumption. It all expresses itself abruptly–gliadin and wheat germ agglutinin bowel disruption especially–with an intentional or inadvertent re-exposure.

      Note that the reactions are very similar to food poisoning.

  2. Lisa

    Hi Dr. Davis,
    Is the same true for products made with organic wheat? I’ve been told that organic wheat is GMO free just wondering it this is true? Also, my Mom just recently had a heart attack and a friend told me about your book and getting her off of wheat. Are there any other suggestions you can give me as far as diet changes for her? Any help would be appreciated.


    • > Is the same true for products made with organic wheat?

      Yes. Avoid.
      “Organic” is pretty much the last item on the food validation checklist, right after non-GMO. It’s an important item, but only if all the other items are checked-off clear above.

      The problems with wheat, of any claimed strain or vintage, are so broad, and so deep, that you never get that far down the checklist. The difference between organic and non-organic wheat is like the difference between organic and non-organic hemlock.

      Organic wheat might have less uptake of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Those hazards are below noise level compared to the major charges on the wheat rap sheet:

      For modern wheat, we have:
      Gluten-free: fail
      Gliadin appetite-stimulation-free: fail
      Gliadin opiate-free: fail
      Gliadin intestinal porosity: fail
      Wheat germ agglutinin-free: fail
      Allergenic protein-free: fail
      Low carb: fail
      Reasonable omega3/omega6 ratio: fail
      GMO-free: it depends on how you define that
      Organic: who cares by this point :)

      • Barbara in New Jersey

        Priceless !!! The difference between organic and non organic hemlock????
        I am going to adopt that phrase!


        Barbara in New Jersey

        • Always insist on all-natural fair-traded free-range organic hemlock …
          … or just eat wheat;
          same outcome, although slower, more painful, and ultimately more expensive. :(

  3. Merry Hill

    It has been suggested by others before me, but I would like to add my 2 cents. I think it would be really helpful to have a specific place to go on your website, to find out about possible effects of wheat reintroduction, or slip-ups that people have endured.

    I am still in disbelieve that such a severe and long-lasting reaction could be caused by the reintroduction of wheat, and that having symptoms spelled out would have helped to make it very clear. I’ve been looking everywhere for similar reactions, but find them scattered all over the site, and none that I found were specific enough to convince me completely that my slip-up caused this severe reaction. Maybe even offering a questionnaire and then categorizing location, severity, duration etc. of such events would help convince people.

    I have been suffering for 5 days after needing a pizza “fix“, after 2 months wheat free. It took me a couple of days (after my initial Dr. appointment) to connect the fact that my slip-up may have caused my very painful lower abdomen and back ache. I thought at first that it might be constipation, so, took a laxative, which did the job, I thought, but the pain remained, in the same place and intensity.

    Next, day #2, to the Dr. thinking a possible UTI, kidney stone or appendicitis, though I had no fever, vomiting or painful urination. Internal exam plus urine test both proved negative, and was sent home on Tylenol, fluids and heating-pad.

    There was no let-up until day #5 when the back ache was gone and an overall belly pain and bloating took over. Lower abdomen pain had also eased somewhat.

    Night #5 and there was a lot of gurgling going on in my belly and I suspected constipation again, so started with prune juice and took a laxative before bed.

    Again, my bowels moved, and much relief in both belly and abdomen was at hand by morning #6. I saw my Dr. again today, and he agrees with me, that it was most likely caused by my pizza fix. I do think though, that a “slip-up symptoms” page on your website would be very helpful in determining wheat related symptoms, or coincidental medical issues.

    • Dr. Davis

      We clearly need a FAQ section here, Merry!

      This blog will be undergoing some changes in coming months. I will be sure to add such a page, including the notion of wheat re-exposure.