How to survive wheat withdrawal

Wheat Withdrawl

During my recent appearances in British Columbia, speaking to crowds in Kelowna, Penticton, Kamloops, and Vernon, I received many questions about how to better deal with the unpleasant symptoms of wheat withdrawal.

Because this question came up so many times, I am re-posting a discussion I posted in 2013 about this issue. It remains as true today as it was then: Wheat withdrawal, for the 40% of people who experience it, cannot be entirely avoided, but the full intensity can be softened. Let’s discuss a number of ways to go about doing that:

Wheat withdrawal can be unpleasant business.

Read the many thousands of comments on this blog describing the physical and emotional turmoil that develops in the first few days of wheat avoidance and you will come to appreciate just how awful it can be.

It is important that wheat withdrawal is recognized for what it is, as some people say, “I feel awful. It must mean that I need wheat.” Nope. It is a withdrawal syndrome, a good thing, a transitional phase as your body tries to return to its normal state.

Wheat withdrawal has been labeled by different names over the years — “Atkin’s flu,” “Paleo flu,” “keto flu,” “low carb flu,” etc. Because this only happens with the various forms of carbohydrate restriction (there is no corresponding “low-fat flu” or “low-calorie flu”), it has often been attributed to the delayed conversion of a glycogen/glucose-dominant metabolism to that of fatty acid oxidation. This is true — but only partly.

Yes, forcing the conversion from a constant flow of carbs from “healthy whole grains” and sugars to increasing the enzymatic capacity to oxidize fats does indeed cause several weeks of low energy — but how do we explain the depression, nausea, headaches, lightheadedness, dehydration, emotional outbursts, intensive wheat cravings, bloating, constipation, even intensification of joint pain, effects that are not likely attributable to hypoglycemia or poor mobilization of energy? Delayed ramp-up of fatty acid oxidation is indeed part of the reason for the phenomena of wheat withdrawal, but does not explain all of it.

Most of these phenomena are caused by withdrawal from the gliadin-derived opiates in wheat, the 4- to 5-amino acid long polypeptides that increase appetite and cause addictive eating behaviors. You can actually trigger the syndrome abruptly in someone who is not wheat-free by giving them naloxone or naltrexone, opiate-blocking drugs. Because it is a form of opiate withdrawal, it cannot be entirely avoided with known strategies.

In other words, an alcoholic (not an opiate, of course, but the situation is very similar) who wishes to rid her life of alcohol can only do so by stopping the flow of alcohol and suffering the withdrawal consequences–there’s no way around it. Alcohol withdrawal phenomena, such as hallucinations, disorientation, and seizures, can be blunted with very high doses of benzodiazepines and other drugs, so this is obviously not something you can manage on your own. (The doses required for an alcoholic, for instance, are fatal for non-alcoholics.)

So what can you do to smooth the wheat withdrawal syndrome that involves 1) a soft opiate withdrawal, and 2) delays in gaining higher levels of fatty acid oxidation? Here are a few strategies:

  • Hydrate–Ridding yourself of wheat involves diuresis, or fluid loss. This is due to the loss of the gliadin protein that causes sodium retention, as well as resolving inflammation previously triggered by gliadin-derived peptides, intact gliadin, and wheat germ agglutinin. Urine, for instance, should always be nearly clear, not a dark, concentrated yellow.
  • Use some salt–e.g., sea salt or other mineral-containing salt to compensate for the loss of urinary salt. Salt, along with water, addresses the common lightheadedness symptoms.
  • Take a probiotic–e.g., 50 billion CFUs or more per day containing mixed species of lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. This accelerates the conversion to healthy bowel flora off the disruptive effects of this potent bowel toxin called wheat. This addresses the common bloating and constipation, usually within 24 hours of initiation. This should be necessary for no more than 4 to 8 weeks. (If symptoms such as heartburn or bloating return when probiotics are stopped, this suggests that there is something else wrong, such as failed cholecystekinin signaling to the pancreas, pancreatic enzyme insufficiency, hypochlorhydria, etc. that requires a formal assessment.) Among the best: VSL3, Garden of Life, and Renew Life brands.
  • Supplement magnesium–Magnesium deficiency is widespread and is associated with osteoporosis, hypertension, higher blood sugar, muscle cramps, and heart rhythm disorders. For unclear reasons, these phenomena are magnified during wheat withdrawal. Magnesium supplementation can thereby have some dramatic benefits during wheat withdrawal. Unfortunately, most magnesium supplements are better as laxatives than as sources of absorbable magnesium. Among the best: magnesium malate at a dose of 1200 mg two or three times per day (weight of the magnesium + malate, not just “elemental” magnesium). Source Naturals makes a great preparation.
  • Supplement omega-3 fatty acids–There are plenty of reasons to supplement omega-3 fatty acids to make up for our aversion to consuming the brains of land animals and only occasional reliance on seafood. But during wheat withdrawal, weight loss proceeds at a rapid clip for most people, a process that involves massive mobilization of fatty acids into the bloodstream (evidenced on a cholesterol panel as higher triglycerides). Omega-3 fatty acids partially protect us from the adverse effects of this flood of fatty acids, as it activates the enzyme, lipoprotein lipase, that helps clear them from the bloodstream. I advocate an EPA + DHA intake of 3000 mg per day (the dose of omega-3 fatty acids, not of fish oil). The best fish oil is in the liquid triglyceride form, not the common ethyl ester capsules, as the triglyceride form is better absorbed (particularly the DHA). My favorite brands because of meticulous production techniques: Ascenta NutraSea and Nordic Naturals.
  • Supplement iodine–The average person is marginally deficient in iodine, particularly in people who avoid use of iodized salt. Ironically, the more you avoid processed foods (as we do with wheat elimination, given wheat’s ubiquity), the less iodized salt you get. Avid exercisers also are more iodine deficient than average, given iodine loss via sweat. This has gotten so bad that I have actually found many people with goiters (enlarged thyroid glands). Even a modest lack of iodine leads to lower output of thyroid hormone (especially T4), resulting in mild hypothyroidism that impairs weight loss, can make fatigue worse, increase LDL cholesterol and triglyceride values, and even increase cardiovascular risk. Iodine is an essential trace mineral: everyone needs it (though people with a history of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or thyroid nodules will have to be extra careful; I’d like to say consult your doctor, which is true if you have a doctor knowledgeable about iodine, which is less than 1% of my colleagues). I advise patients to supplement iodine as inexpensive drops, capsules, or kelp tablets (dried seaweed) to provide 500 mcg iodine per day.

Those are the supplements that have proven tried and true in reducing at least some of the most common struggles with wheat withdrawal.

Over the 2+ years since Wheat Belly first made bookstores and upset many people in the wheat world, we’ve learned many new lessons on how to best deal with the phenomenon of wheat withdrawal. If you’ve got some strategies you have found useful, please speak up and post a comment here.

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Comments & Feedback...

  1. Culinary Adventurer

    Dr. Davis,

    When I first went off wheat, I had only minor withdrawal symptoms such as sharp headache pain and tiredness. These were brief – lasting only a week or two.

    Since I had lived for decades with so many ill effects from ingesting wheat, when I stopped eating it and felt immediate relief, the withdrawal symptoms just didn’t matter in comparison.

    Also, I had already changed my diet to include more protein mostly in the form of nuts and had cut back on sugar as well. When the wheat was gone, the transformation was fast. Learning to prepare meals with only healthy ingredients soon became natural.

    About four months in however, I began to experience leg and foot cramps that were so severe it felt like my own muscles might twist hard enough to shatter my bones. A quick drink of plain tonic water (with Quinine) stopped them immediately but they were not going away. That was when I added the iodine (kelp) and Magnesium to my short list of supplements which were initially just probiotics and vitamin D3. Shortly after, all muscle cramps gradually ceased. I don’t have them now unless I forget to keep hydrated and even then, they are mild and stop quickly.

    In the beginning I also walking about 20 minutes a day and that helped to ease the withdrawal symptoms too. I found that just mild aerobic walking really calmed down any headaches and increased my energy levels.
    Now I exercise regularly and still walk often and enjoy feeling really great!

    I wonder if adding proteins in first and the supplements might help people avoid the withdrawal you are hearing about. What do you think?

    I also wonder if the leg cramps were related to neuropathy. I don’t know if I had that but I did have numbness on the outside of my legs before removing wheat and it has gone away too.

    Hope this helps anyone considering going wheatless. I have no regrets whatsoever!

    Enjoying your new cookbook!
    CA

    • Culinary Adventurer

      Dr. Davis,
      To clarify – the Magnesium I use is Magnesium Malate (NOW brand) 1000mg
      I’d like to know more about what this does if you have any info.
      CA

      • Barbara in New Jersey

        Good Morning CA,

        Magnesium is involved in hundreds of metabolic processes in your body. Too many to list here. Do a quick internet search and you will quickly realize the magnitude of its importance. There are many different forms in the way this mineral in processed. Malate is just one of them and well absorbed by most people. Chloride and glycinate are other forms which some people can tolerate well. Magnesium oxide is more difficult for most, but not all, and can easily have a laxative effect.

        I inadvertently purchased the oxide form so I know it does have the laxative effect. The other forms are well tolerated but are manufactured to provide much smaller doses than Dr. Davis recommends so you have to remember to take the proper amount. I place a strip of tape on the bottle with the # of pills needed as a reminder.

        • Culinary Adventurer

          Greetings Barbara in New Jersey!
          I will do more research on Magnesium – but I am certain it is helping.
          Tried the Glycinate form before I could locate the Malate form and I tolerate both of them just fine. However, I don’t believe I’ll be looking into that Oxide version you tangled with. Nope – don’t need that one! ;-)
          Hey, have you flambe`d anything new lately?
          Best,
          CA

          • Barbara in New Jersey

            CA,

            Funny you asked!!!!
            I have been making chopped liver pate for holiday get togethers. Whatever recipe I use for the chicken / beef chopped liver, I make the pate a day ahead of time and FLAMBE’ it with brandy or cognac! The flavors meld overnight, creating a subtle mellow tasting pate’.

            I use about 2 -3 TBS of chicken fat and sometimes some additional butter to sauté 2 medium onions and then sauté or broil the livers and add 2 large or extra large hard boiled eggs. Everything is pureed in the food processor until the proper consistency. S&P added to taste. I remove it to a glass bowl and then use about 1/2 oz. brandy or cognac for about 1 lb. of liver to flambé. Sometimes I use Triple Sec.

            And no, I haven’t set off the fire alarm yet!!!!!

      • Dr. Davis

        Magnesium is important for hundreds of body processes, including regulation of blood sugar and insulin responses, blood pressure, and maintenance of normal rhythm. Deficiency is exceptionally common, given prior grain consumption (that blocks magnesium absorption via phytates), water filtration, and reduced magnesium content in produce.

        • Culinary Adventurer

          Dr. Davis,
          Thank you! This is just the type of information I was hoping you would share. I like knowing more about any supplements I may need and how they interact with internal processes. Limiting the number needed is my goal but I don’t want to miss the important ones. Your input is important!
          Good to see all your responses today!
          CA

    • NancyM

      Leg/foot cramps are a problem on a low carb diet. I think getting extra salt helps a lot, as well as potassium, magnesium and perhaps calcium. I’d advise making your own salty bone broth (save bones from chicken, beef and pork), add some vinegar to help soften the bones and leach out the minerals. That will get more minerals out of the bones.

      Salt helps you retain the minerals you already have. A healthy, whole food diet, especially if carbs are lowered, is sodium depleting.

    • Loekie

      ‘About four months in however, I began to experience leg and foot cramps that were so severe it felt like my own muscles might twist hard enough to shatter my bones. A quick drink of plain tonic water (with Quinine) stopped them immediately but they were not going away. That was when I added the iodine (kelp) and Magnesium to my short list of supplements which were initially just probiotics and vitamin D3. Shortly after, all muscle cramps gradually ceased. I don’t have them now unless I forget to keep hydrated and even then, they are mild and stop quickly.’
      Me too! But I ate seeds in stead of magnesium pills and I took seaweed in stead of kelptablets.
      ‘I also wonder if the leg cramps were related to neuropathy. I don’t know if I had that but I did have numbness on the outside of my legs before removing wheat and it has gone away too.’
      Me too!

    • Dr. Davis

      Magnesium was most likely the culprit, Culinary, given the leg cramps.

      As you now appreciate, magnesium provides a big bang!

      • Culinary Adventurer

        Thanks Dr. Davis!
        I’ll stay on it for sure!
        By the way – Slept in after the Grammys so I ended up watching tv later than usual this a.m. – happened to catch actor Jeff Garlin on the Kelly&Michael show. He was enjoying compliments on weight loss and guess what he said … –
        He doesn’t diet anymore, he exercises, hasn’t eaten sugar in six years and DOES NOT EAT WHEAT!!!
        Best to you as always,
        CA

  2. Mark.

    I’ve tried taking that magnesium citrate laxative solution in doses much below those suggested for relief of constipation. It seems to cause no ill effects and it’s readily available and seems cheap. No idea how well it’s absorbed.

  3. Keiko

    Dear Dr. Davis
    I experienced some discomfort after leaving wheat and other grains off my plate.
    I did not enjoy it but I knew I was getting better, each day was a new challenge but how could I stop this passage when I can clearly see the progress in some other ways, flat stomach, calmer sense of being,….
    With medical costs getting so out of control in this country, and government involvement seems to make matters worse and more complicated, all I can say is we all have to take charge of our own health and educate ourselves with right information.
    Thank you for your research and passion for the wheat free life!
    I see your book was published in Japan, I saw some reviewers wishing to have different type of recipe to suit Japanese culture. Maybe someday I will get to read the book in Japanese.

    • Dr. Davis

      I actually tried to avoid using Japanese recipes, Keiko, despite being part Japanese myself, as I didn’t think a Western audience would be interested in such recipes. Perhaps a Wheat Belly cookbook with more Japanese-friendly dishes might not be a bad idea!

      • Neicee

        I’ll be first in line when your Japanese/Asian recipe book hits the shelves. Growing up in the SF Bay Area I learned to crave anything with an Asian twist. The hardest thing for me has been letting go of Chinese/Japanese/Taiwanese and any other dish offered from that part of the world. Have learned to cook many dishes at home, without the dreaded sugars/breading/sauces without thickening, etc.. Panko is hard to duplicate. One of the many reasons I hit on http://www.Nomnom.com every time I’m looking for something new.

          • Culinary Adventurer

            Dear Keiko and Niecee,
            Hi,
            I am also missing the Asian aspects of cooking having grown up in part with this cuisine.
            Take a look on page 171 in Dr. Davis’ new 30 minute cookbook – there is a recipe for Coconut Crusted Fish Sticks. The coating “feels” a lot like Panko. It is not overly sweet and when baking gives a very nice crunch. We added the olive oil to the dry mix first and then applied it rather than spraying the fish and the coating “crisped up” nicely. This is at least a starting point towards a Panko replacement. I am going to try adding a little Cashew flour with it to see how that works with the flavor. Also I brush the fish with butter and sometimes a little Frank’s hot sauce to the butter for extra flavor.
            I am also playing around with making a bright fish sauce with anchovies and lemon and organic non GMO soy sauce and cilantro. That helps too. I also use a lime infused olive oil to cook with that brightens the flavors of many Asian style vegetable dishes.
            Tempura batter will be a real challenge but I miss it too!
            Share if you have a breakthrough!
            Best,
            CA

          • Neicee

            Hi Culinary Adventurer,
            I’ve been making coconut shrimp using an egg wash, lots of spices, dip into the coconut dusted with coconut flour, back into the egg wash, another dip in the coconut and sauté. You can make the orange dipping sauce with orange juice, thickened with zanthum(sp) gum, shave the rind from the orange, stevia, a little shave of ginger, and red pepper flakes. Can’t give you amounts because it’s all from taste.

          • Neicee

            I’m making a lovely little lobster alfredo dish tonight. If you can tolerate rice it would be great I’m sure. But, I simply reduce it enough that it’s more lobster/shrimp/or crab entrée. I’ve even used it with chicken. Will try to take the time later today to remember all the ingredients – and amounts! ;) Again, I cook by feel and taste so it’s iffy.

          • Neicee

            Culinary Adventurer,
            Alfredo Sauce
            2 TLBS. butter
            1 diced tomato
            3 garlic cloves minced
            1 pint heavy whipping cream
            1 – 1 1/2 cups (or more) grated parmesan or romano cheese
            Melt butter in saucepan, add garlic and chopped tomato. Saute until tomato is soft. Slowly add cream and cheese and reduce close to half. Add one half pound of cooked shrimp, flaked crab, or lobster pieces – if using chicken par-boil 2 boneless/skinless chicken breasts, chop and add until heated through. If too thick add 1/2 &1/2 or more cream. High heat will cause cream to break and separate, so use medium or medium low.

  4. La Frite

    I had only one “withdrawal symptom”: feeling of hunger decreased considerably. That was 2 years ago, it lasted a few days. I lost a lot of weight because of that. I never stopped eating starches though (potatoes, white rice, starchy veggies, bananas, etc). I did remove all junk foods from my diet, including sugar and polyunsat fats (except fatty fish and fermented cod liver oil as a supplement). I even don’t or rarely eat nuts, I am no fan of them except as treats once in a while. I actually have an interesting chocolate mousse recipe which I make nutty with blended almonds and macadamia nuts (blanched and roasted for 20mn in the oven prior to preparing the mousse).

    Today, my hunger is completely under control. I eat mainly one big meal a day around 6pm, and have a couple of fruits or a poached egg or a cold potato here and then during the day. It is very similar to a mix of the Warrior Diet and the Perfect Health Diet by P. Jaminet. I feel on top of things :)

    LF

  5. Faye

    Dr. Davis, I certainly don’t want to experience withdrawal symptoms but I do miss chips, of which I know is off limits for the wheat free lifestyle. Are Beanitos bean chips compliant? The ingredients are whole navy beans, whole grain rice, pure sunflower and/or safflower oil, guar bean gum, and sea salt. If they are not can you suggest an alternative?

  6. We hope you don’t mind us using your blog to help us get
    the word out about our nutrition conference. The Central Coast Nutrition Conference
    here in San Luis Obispo, California on March 1st, 2014.

    We’re getting calls from all over for this event that features:

    Eric Westman, MD:
    The Latest Science on the Low Carb, High Fat Diet
    Jay Wortman, MD:
    The Ketogenic Diet for Diabetes and Other Chronic Conditions
    Steve Phinney, MD. PhD:
    Inflammation and the Low Carb, High Fat Diet
    Jeff Volek, PhD, RD:
    How your Blood Panel Values Respond to a Ketogenic Diet

    If you will be in Central California in a couple of weeks, this is
    a great opportunity to see and talk with doctors on the cutting
    edge of the LCHF revolution.

    Here’s the link to our website:

    http://www.ccnutritionconference.com/Home.html

    Thanks

    • Culinary Adventurer

      Hi everyone,
      Is it just on my computer or has WB blog rolled back to an earlier date (January 23) and all subsequent posts removed when you visit too?
      What’s goin on?
      CA

      • Barbara in New Jersey

        Hi CA,

        The site was hacked/attacked earlier this week. It is just beginning to recover, however slowly. At least the captcha code function is working now so we can now comment on issues.

      • It appears that the site backups only enabled restoration to what you see. A couple of weeks worth of articles and responses is presumably lost (except on external web archiving sites). This has happened before, but only a day’s worth or so was lost that time.

        Curiously, the 7-day thread-locking feature was also rolled back, so commenting is once again enabled on all vintages of threads. Whether this will remain the case is anyone’s guess.

        • Culinary Adventurer

          Barbara and Boundless,
          Many thanks for this news! Its no fun being Wheatless and WBlogless too! Hope Dr. Davis gets things up and running again soon. Lets catch those hackers and make ‘em eat a bag of flour!
          CA

          • Barbara in New Jersey

            CA,
            Very funny! Unless these people are being paid by BigAg to cause mayhem, it is hard to understand why they would spend their time and energy to use their skills in this manner. Surely there must be some gain, but what could that be?

            If they are just trying to create havoc because they can, then they are already grain brains!

        • Dr. Davis

          Catching up, Boundless!

          We are looking at migrating to a new platform to keep such nonsense from happening again, all while we also reconfigure this blog and make it more user-friendly.

  7. I read your book last Saturday and didn’t stop until I was finished. I quit wheat the same day. I cannot tell you how this totally indicated to me. I have gained 50 lbs in two years despite doing several extreme diets (master cleanse, HCG diet) I gained the weigh back every time. Years ago I went totally vegetarian and ended up with a huge bloated belly due to eating pasta and bread instead of meat!

    This last two years I have been getting headaches and feeling older and older. Even in the last week of not eating any wheat I have increased my mood to being happy and and sleeping better. I was getting worse and worse dreams and hallucinations.