Although people commonly call many reactions to wheat a “wheat allergy,” most reactions actually represent something else.

Gastrointestinal distress is more likely, for example, to be due to lectins (wheat germ agglutinin) in wheat that disable the normal capacity to keep foreign substances from gaining entry into the bloodstream. Or it may be due to the gliadins, the same proteins that amp up appetite, cloud your thinking, yield addictive behavior and generate the wheat withdrawal syndrome. Cramps, diarrhea, and acid reflux likely have nothing to do with an allergic response.

Joint pain likewise is more likely due to gliadin and/or glutens, proteins that have potent capacity to activate inflammation. Joint inflammation is also encouraged by lectins, since the foreign proteins allowed entry into your body may trigger autoimmune responses to joint structures. No allergy here either.

So is there really such a thing as “wheat allergy”?

Yes, there is indeed. Wheat allergy is an immune response that involves the IgE class of antibodies that trigger mast cells (a form of white blood cell) to release histamine, yielding the familiar itchy runny nose, airway spasm (asthma), sinus congestion, and skin rashes, especially hives (urticaria) and atopic dermatitis. Wheat components can also induce anaphylaxis, or shock and collapse; this is called wheat-dependent exercise-induced analyphylaxis, or WDEIA, nearly always induced, oddly, by exercising after consuming something containing wheat.

What components of wheat are potentially responsible for allergic IgE responses? There are many, including:

Acyl CoA oxidase
Alpha- and beta-amylases
Alpha amylase inhibitors
Gliadins, glutens
Glycerinaldehyde-e-phosphate dehydrogenase
Lipid transfer protein (a very interesting recent addition to the list, with plenty more to learn)
Serine proteinase inhibitors (serpins)
Triosphosphate isomerase

(Reviewed here, for anyone interested.)

Wheat allergy, of course, has increased explosively in children, along with allergy to corn, soy, peanuts, dairy, and eggs. (Author of The UNHealthy Truth and mother, Robyn O’Brien, a champion for understanding food allergies in kids, provides this excellent overview during a recent TED presentation.) In these kids, wheat may simply be another source of unique allergens previously unseen by humans, i.e., perhaps some of the above proteins altered by just a few amino acids. Are kids serving as the “canary in the coal mine,” reacting to unique proteins generated by the manipulations of agricultural geneticists and agribusiness? I think they are. These kinds of allergies that kids have are uncommon in adults. But what is the consequence of all of us exposed to these foreign proteins that, while they may not provoke allergy, have not been previously consumed by humans? We’re likely to find out in the coming years in those who continue to consume this product of genetics research called “wheat.”

So, yes, genuine wheat allergy does occur. But, in the true sense of the term “allergy,” it is probably responsible for only some of the responses we see with wheat consumption.

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Comments & Feedback...

  1. Linda Harris

    Thank you for being so informative. I purchased your book after seeing you on the 700 Club. It was like God had me watch that day for a reason. You have given me more info than my gastroenterologist has in 15 years and in just a few short weeks of doing without wheat, my symptoms from colitis have improved. I researched lectins and have decided to give up more than wheat, I just have to get my mind around it and get motivated. I have been sharing some info with my fb friends and family, a few have told me they are getting your book, I”m just hoping it improves their health.

  2. Susan manganese

    Thanks for this – very informative. I do have a question. You didn”t mention symptoms like sore throat, headache, fatigue and muscle weakness . These are all symptoms I have on a regular basis which I now believe could be directly related to the food I eat. Could these symptoms also be brought on by mast cells?

    Thank you again for such a life altering book!

  3. Susan

    In looking up lectins I see that they are in nuts and seeds. Your book indicates unlimited amounts of nuts and seeds. I”m a bit confused by this. Could you clarify? Thanks!

  4. Rong

    Let”s don”t forget our furry friends. If we haven”t “evolved” to tolerate grains imagine the problems induced into cats and dogs from consuming grains. Ever check the contents of most dog and cat foods? They are full of cheap fillers of all types of grains. Some even brag about the great “natural” grains. Can you imagine a wolf grazing through a wheat field? Maybe if their was some actual wolf prey there but certainly not otherwise. And yet we feed our dogs wheat and all forms of other grains. I am no vet but I have gotten many, many friends off of grain based pet foods to the benefit of their pets. All sorts of skin allergies and intestinal problems that vets couldn”t sort our were solved by eliminating all grains from the pets food.

    • Janet

      Is there a meat based dry food for cats you would recommend? I have tried some of them–one I can”t remember the name is venison and salmon but they don”t seem to like it after awhile. Same with a couple of other brands. They don”t throw up the meat versions much at all though and eat smaller amounts, so maybe I should just keep it at that and not worry. IF they are hungry they will eat. Both indoor cats. I do give them wet food but they turn their noses up at anything other than the fishy Friskies varieties. Ha. I switched vets because the one I had was into big animals more and just handed me the Science Diet–which doesn”t look that good from the ingredient labels.

      • Rong

        We don”t have cat any more but we do have two Giant Schnauzers. We feed them real actual food. Beef, pork & chicken with a good multi-vitamen and canned vegetables. The latter being green beans, sweet potato, spinach, carrots or peas all salt free. We feed them 60% meat to 40% veggies. About the highest processed dog food I have found is 40% protein. I read cats require even higher percentages of protein than dogs. We also mix in Omega oils and various other vitamins. Nothing beats the real thing when compared to processed foods. Why let a company decide for you what is good quality food? Likely their bottom line will be more important than your pets health. Go to the store and pick it out yourself. We wait for meat sales and buy in bulk and store in our freezer.

      • Hi, Janet–

        I”m hardly an expert in cat food. But I know that, in dog food, the Orijen line is a grain-free choice. There are a number of others.

  5. Coleen C.

    Tried to post before but didn”t work. I give my dog and cats “Natural Balance,” good ingredients (no wheat, corn, gluten, etc.) — wet and dry, and dog dry food from Costco, “Benchmark.” I usually mix the dog”s wet and dry together and feed the cats wet & dry separately. My deceased dogs both had cancer, one had mast cell tumors, which I now attribute to the wheat/corn in their food.

    • I worry, Coleen, that our pets have served as experimental models for what becomes of humans who eat similarly.

      Reject the wheat and corn: No cancer in our cats and dogs, perhaps a substantial impact on us, too.

  6. janet

    thanks. They both love rotisserie chicken but i dont like to share. Just now back to cooking for myself and hubby with better food so cats will have to wait some before i cook for them too. Ha.

  7. Amanda

    I always say that I have a “wheat allergy” at restaurants, though, just to get the point across. “Gluten intolerance” , most don”t comprehend. If you say you”re allergic, that sets off a red flag in (most) servers heads, because they”re thinking that it”s like a peanut allergy and they”ll have to call an ambulance for you if they screw up your order.

  8. Ellie

    I avoid all grains these days, but it seems to be CORN that causes me to get sick. Even a tiny bit in a supplement (corn derivatives are everywhere) made my nose raw and itchy, my head and lungs congested, and i felt just yucky. But it’s not acute in the sense that i need an epi-pen or swell up and get hives. I’ve been reading about IgG mediated, less severe, food allergies, but I don’t know if it’s good science. I suppose it doesn’t matter, so long as I’m eating in a health supporting way. Still, corn is even more prevalent than wheat in our food supply, and any thoughts you have on it would be appreciated. I have, of course, noted your comments about corn starch in gluten free ‘healthy’ foods.

    Thanks for your work! It’s good to have a doc explain this stuff and present an informed, emperical opinion. There’s so much info out there, it can be hard to interpret.

    • Dr. Davis

      I won’t pretend to be an expert in corn, Ellie. However, like wheat, corn has been the recipient of extensive genetic changes: hybridizations over the last many centuries, and now genetic modification for a number of unique gene insertions.

      I’m not the least bit surprised that you react this decidedly unnatural grain.

  9. Ellie

    Hey, thanks!

    I just had a cool experience. I’ve been off grains and sugar consistently for a couple of weeks, and craving stuff I mustn’t eat. Today after a breakfast of eggs with veggies, I did hard yard work for three hours, after which I was super hungry. Instead of wanting junk carbs, my body was begging for a huge salad of mixed greens, cabbage, pumpkin seeds, and chicken breast.

    I eat my veggies and protein dutifully, but I don’t think I’ve ever CRAVED them like that before.

    Still, I think I’ll enjoy that mocha chocolate brownie recipe :)

    • Dr. Davis

      You mean you want REAL food, Ellie? That’s great!

      You are reverting to your inner Cavewoman, who eats to serve physiologic need.

  10. Dr. Davis,

    I heard about your book on Boortz and I am reading it. I took a blood test and am allergic to wheat. My problem is I am 6 feet and used to weigh 160lbs and now after cutting out wheat I can barely maintain 150lbs. I am very active (working out, playing hockey, chasing my kids around) and I look like a skeleton. Do you have any diet suggestions for putting on weight on the Wheat Free diet? Thanks for the book and you need to join forces with Jamie Oliver and get the school diet changed.

    Best regards,

  11. Julie

    I read the book and spoke to relatives who are eliminating wheat from their diet. One relative says rice crackers and pumpernickel bread are OK to eat….also potatoes are OK… I’m a little confused! I love pumpernickel bread but researched to see if wheat might be used to make it…..apparently North American pumpernickel recipes do use wheat but traditional pumpernickel does not. What do you think? Could not find reference to pumpernickel bread anywhere in the book….other than a reference to rye.
    I have IBS and wonder if wheat and its properties played a part in my attacks? My husband and I are willing to try this diet – if this works, it certainly is worth it….

    • Dr. Davis

      To my knowledge, pumpernickel is a wheat or rye product. Rye and wheat are, for all practical purposes, interchangeable.

      I’d lose the pumpernickel, Julie.

      By the way, the rice crackers should go, too. This processed form of rice skyrockets blood sugar.

  12. Dr. Davis,

    I have both of your books. While I’m a work in progress (starting seriously as of 1/2/13) and would love to relate my medical history, I’m writing about my dog. My 4.7 year-old Boston Terrier (Buster) has skin allergies–he itches terribly and chews on his feet. I follow a BARF diet (raw chicken neck) for him for one meal a day, then give 1/2 c. reduced wheat kibble for his second feeding. I try to give him 1 egg a week and he gets any veggies that I deem not fresh enough for the table. What do folks following the Wheat Belly diet feed their pets? He’s trim, sharp-looking fellow, … aside from his coat turning orangeish-pink where his saliva comes into contact with his fur/skin.

    Aren’t you also a fellow-Boston Terrier lover?

  13. Ruth C

    Dr. Davis,

    We follow the Weston Price protocol which has us fermenting wheat products before eating, including oats for morning porridge, in warm water and whey. Recently, I switched to *sprouted* spelt (i.e., it came in the box pre-sprouted) and I noticed one my daughters had hand eczema as well as sinus congestion. Do you have the same opinion of Einkorn wheat that is properly sprouted (i.e., fermented) before it is prepared as a porridge, bread or cake?

    Thank you for any information….

  14. Erin

    Dear Dr. Davis, Our whole family has been wheat free since Dec. 28. We all feel great. As far as my children go, I have been wheat free at home and for lunches. My daughter has not really had wheat in months and today she had a burger and a piece of cake. Tonight she has broken out in hives…is this a normal reaction? Wow….if so, really speaks to the detrimental power of wheat…

  15. Hi Dr Davis,

    I’m only 50 pages in, but my mind has already been blown because I have suffered from cholinergic urticaria — what some people call exercise-induced hives — since I was a child. I don’t actually break out in hives, but since I can remember I thought it was normal to get really, REALLY itchy when engaging in aerobic activity or cardio. When I first found out I had it (self diagnosed, thank you, Internet) I just resorted to taking an antihistamine every day, because if I don’t, I *cannot* work out that day. So planning ahead, I just said, I’ll just take a pill every day. Not that I want to…but exercise is important. That was my mind being blown in and of itself, because my doctor told me after I informed HER of my self diagnosis that it could actually lead to anaphylaxis if left unchecked. That some people can get it from overheating OR being too cold. Mind blown again, because I almost drowned as an adolescent when the summer camp folks thought I should just tough out the cold lake water during our swim test, and I had to be rescued by boat.

    So mind blown AGAIN as I read this and find it may just be a wheat allergy. Finally getting to my question: How can I test out my theory? For how long do I have to eliminate wheat from my diet before trying to work out without an antihistamine? I will do so in a controlled environment, of course. If I get itchy, I will stop. But I have to know if this works for me. If it can keep me from taking a pill every day for the rest fo my life, it’s worth it…in addition to all the other ill effects of wheat that right now I’m probably just writing off to other things!