Gluten is defined as a protein composite (gliadin and glutenin) found in grains such as: barley, rye, and most commonly, wheat. The word gluten is derived from the Latin word “gluten” which roughly translates to “glue.” Gluten is what gives grain-based products a chewy texture and allows these products to maintain a specific shape. In addition to being used in foods, gluten is also an additive in many cosmetic and dermatology products.
In the past, gluten was never considered a staple part of the human diet. Only in recent generations with the rise of high-carbohydrate diets has gluten consumption become problematic. The increased consumption of gluten has lead people to develop adverse reactions such as: celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder), gluten-sensitivity, “leaky gut,” and other wheat allergies. Many would also argue that since humans didn’t evolve to eat gluten, its consumption may elicit detrimental effects on both bodily functions and cognitive performance.
Due to rampant health concerns regarding gluten consumption, as well as an increase in science-based evidence suggesting that gluten may be problematic, some people have attempted to kick gluten from their diet. Although many people are successful in eradicating gluten from their diets, others end up experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms that makes it tough to stay gluten-free. One reason may be due to the fact that when digesting gluten, it breaks down into “exorphins” which bind to opioid receptors in your brain.
The exorphins are basically particles of protein that are derived from an exogenous source (e.g. food, drugs, etc.) and mimic the effects of endorphins. Each time you eat gluten, you’re getting A5, B4, B5, and C exorphins that may make you feel calmer or feel slight degrees of pleasure. While gluten-based opioid stimulation may not be as significant as heroin, it can make the withdrawal process more difficult than expected.
Factors that influence gluten withdrawal
There are several factors that are important to consider when eliminating gluten from the diet. Thing such as: amount consumed each day, time span over which you’ve consumed gluten, your individual physiology, as well as the rate at which you discontinued – can all influence the severity and length of withdrawal symptoms.
1. Daily Consumption Amount
Generally the more products you consume with gluten on a daily basis, the harder it will likely be to discontinue. More gluten means greater stimulation of the opioid receptors in your brain, leading to a potentially significant physiological backlash when you discontinue. If you’ve been pounding wheat-based products for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner – you probably have a high gluten intake.
Those with a high-gluten intake baseline are likely going to develop more severe symptoms when they discontinue. If you’re someone that doesn’t consume large quantities of gluten on a daily basis, you may not notice nearly as intense of a withdrawal. The lower the amount of gluten you’re currently consuming, the easier it will likely be to quit.
2. Cold Turkey vs. Tapering
How quickly did you discontinue gluten from your diet? Did you find everything with gluten in your kitchen and toss it in the garbage? Or did you make a conscientious effort to slowly reduce the amount of gluten in your diet in a tapering method. There is debate as to whether tapering off of gluten products (e.g. gradually titrating consumption amount) is a superior method of withdrawal to giving it up “cold turkey.”
Many people find that when they quit cold turkey from a previously high gluten intake, that they cannot handle the withdrawal symptoms. Part of this may be due to certain gluten-induced endorphin deficiencies. Those that “taper” down their gluten consumption before finally quitting generally find that withdrawal symptoms are less severe because they’ve given their physiology some extra time to transition and adapt to reduced consumption.
3. Time Span
How long have you been consuming gluten, and at what frequency? If you’ve eaten lots of wheat products on a daily basis for your entire life, it’s going to be more difficult to discontinue than someone who only began eating a lot of wheat in recent years. Most of the United States population has been eating products with gluten for their entire lives.
If you happened to be gluten-free for awhile, sporadically broke the period by eating some gluten, and are withdrawing again, it probably won’t be quite as bad. Even if you can’t think of any wheat-products that you’ve consumed, take a careful look at the ingredients on the foods that you eat. Unless you’ve made a conscious effort to stay gluten-free or carbohydrate free, it’s likely that you consume gluten on a daily basis.
4. Individual Factors
It is important to consider individual factors when discontinuing gluten consumption. Things like an individual’s: physiology, genetics, dietary intake (other foods), and general lifestyle may influence the severity and duration of withdrawal symptoms. Everyone wants a definitive answer regarding the length of gluten withdrawal and unfortunately one cannot be given due to significant individual variation.
You need to withdraw for yourself to know how long gluten withdrawal takes. For one person it may last a week or two, while for another it may last over a month before symptoms fully subside. Avoid comparing your situation to that of others when withdrawing from any substance because there are significant individual influential factors.
Gluten Withdrawal Symptoms: List of Possibilities
Some people experience very subtle or no withdrawal symptoms when stopping gluten, but others experience moderately debilitating symptoms that can last weeks before improving. Below is a list of possible symptoms that you may experience when discontinuing gluten. Keep in mind that the severity and duration of symptoms will be largely individualized.
- Anger: If you turn into a raging maniac when discontinuing gluten, you are not alone. Many people have reported anger outbursts and feeling especially irritable when they cannot have their gluten. It could be related to the lack of opioid stimulation (which can calm us down) from gluten.
- Anxiety: Some people end up feeling increasingly anxious when they withdraw from gluten. This anxiety may be due to a number of biochemical changes that occur in the physiology as a result of gluten discontinuation. The body is expecting to receive the energy and opioid effects from gluten products, but it doesn’t and you feel nervous instead of calm.
- Bloating: This is characterized by swelling or increase in the diameter of your abdominal area. It may be a highly uncomfortable experience during gluten withdrawal, but should eventually subside. To offset bloating, make sure you are eating healthy foods that contain fiber (e.g. broccoli, berries, etc.).
- Brain fog: During the initial stages of withdrawal, you may feel as if your concentration is at an all-time low. While eventually your mental clarity and focus will likely return and be sharper than they were with gluten in your diet, the fogginess can sometimes be difficult to deal with. Do not be surprised if your ability to think clearly is hampered in early stages of withdrawal.
- Constipation: Some people become constipated when they stop eating gluten. This may be due to their new dietary choices as well as lack of fiber in the diet. It could also be a result of transitory physiological adjustments taking place in the body. Realize that this will be temporary assuming you are eating a healthy gluten-free diet.
- Cravings: One of the most prominent symptoms that you’ll experience when withdrawing from gluten is that of cravings. These cravings are generally severe in the early stages, and tend to lessen the longer you’ve been gluten-free. Like going through any drug withdrawal, cravings tend to be the worst in the first few weeks or months of withdrawal, but will eventually subside completely. Keep in mind that if you aren’t eating sufficient alternative gluten-free foods, cravings may intensify as a result of hunger or lack of nourishment.
- Depression: Certain individuals become depressed when they stop eating products with gluten. This may be a result of their dependence on the mood boosting effects of the gluten exorphins. The depression may persist for awhile, but mood will eventually stabilize and/or become boosted over the long-term as a result of going gluten-free.
- Diarrhea: Some people notice that they cannot hold down food as well when they quit gluten. They experience diarrhea in the early stages of discontinuation, but eventually digestion stabilizes. This is a less common reaction than constipation, but still one that certain people report.
- Dizziness: You may feel slightly dizzy when you discontinue from gluten. This may be due to the neurological mechanisms by which gluten affected your brain. Generally the dizziness won’t be too severe, but it may be uncomfortable. Keep in mind that it’s temporary and shouldn’t be long-lasting.
- Fatigue: Another very common symptom to experience is that of severe fatigue during the early stages of gluten discontinuation. This fatigue may be debilitating for some people to the point that they just want to sleep all day. As long as you’re eating other high quality foods, your body will eventually adapt to gluten-free foods for its source of “fuel” and fatigue will subside. In fact, many people who’ve been gluten-free for an extended period report having more energy than when they ate gluten.
- Flu-like symptoms: Those that react severely during gluten withdrawal may develop symptoms similar to having influenza. They may experience dizziness, a headache, joint pains, nausea, and in some cases vomiting. (Obviously make sure you aren’t actually sick with a virus or the flu). If these symptoms emerged when you quit gluten, it could be a direct result.
- Headaches: Many people have reported headaches during the first couple weeks of going gluten-free. These headaches are more likely to occur in the earliest days of withdrawal, but should ease up the longer you’ve been functioning without gluten.
- Hot flashes: Elimination of gluten from the diet may result in experiencing hot flashes (or cold flashes) throughout the day. This is due to the fact that the physiology comes to expect gluten in the diet, and when it doesn’t get it, your body reacts by changing its temperature.
- Irritability: If you find yourself becoming irritable when you stop eating gluten, it’s probably because your brain is no longer getting the same stimulation. Gluten affects the brain in many ways including by stimulating exorphins, which make us calm. By eliminating gluten, you no longer feel the minor opioid effects, making you feel more irritable than usual.
- Joint pain: Many people also report feeling intensified joint pain and body aches when they discontinue gluten. These aches and pains can be problematic in early stages, but should actually improve as you alter your diet to include healthy gluten-free foods. Pain tolerance may be slightly decreased during early stages of withdrawal due to slight opioid alterations.
- Lightheadedness: If you feel lightheaded, you are not alone. Some people experience dizziness accompanied by lightheadedness during the first few days they go without gluten. Within a week or two this symptom should improve significantly.
- Mood swings: If you find yourself flipping out or becoming noticeably “moody” – it may be a result of changes occurring as a result of going gluten-free. You no longer are getting the same exorphin stimulation as a result of gluten in your diet, leading you to feel more moody than usual. The good news is that moods tend to not only stabilize, but improve the longer you’ve been without gluten.
- Nausea: Some people note feeling nauseous when they give up gluten. The nausea may lead to vomiting or lack of appetite. Most people that experience nausea find that it’s relatively mild and eventually subsides within a couple weeks.
- Stomach aches: Your body may be expecting to receive gluten, and when it doesn’t, all sorts of symptoms arise including stomach aches. These are likely due to changes in your body’s digestive process. As long as you’re getting sufficient fiber and eating other healthy foods, stomach aches shouldn’t be overwhelming.
- Vomiting: In some cases, people actually get stick when they go without gluten. This reaction is generally experienced by those who ate high quantities of gluten-based foods and quit cold turkey. If you’re to the point that you’re vomiting, you may want to consider tapering off at a more gradual rate.
- Weight changes: You may find that gluten withdrawal leads to fluctuations in your weight. Obviously whether you end up losing weight or gaining weight may depend on the foods that you replace gluten-based foods with. A majority of people though end up losing weight after they’ve discontinued gluten.
How long does Gluten withdrawal last?
Everyone wants a specific answer regarding how long gluten withdrawal will last. The problem is that no specific answer can be given due to significant individual variation in: gluten consumption, physiology, lifestyles, and duration over which gluten was consumed. It also may make a difference as to whether you decided to “taper” your gluten or quit “cold turkey.”
Some people may not notice any major symptoms at all when stopping gluten. Most people feel noticeably better after 2 to 4 weeks of complete gluten discontinuation. Others may experience protracted cravings and withdrawals that persist for several months. It is very difficult for some people to give up diets with high gluten for numerous reasons such as: foods with gluten can be addicting, they can lead to temporary pleasure or mood boosts (via exorphins), and they can alter the way we metabolize food.
When going through gluten withdrawal, realize that your body needs to recalibrate its metabolism, gut biome, and other physiological functions. Therefore it may take awhile before all withdrawal symptoms to clear up and noticeably improve. Understand that many of these symptoms are a direct cause of eliminating the gluten-derived opioids (exorphins) from daily consumption.
You may want to consider various dietary supplements including: sea salt, magnesium, and probiotics to help mitigate the effects of gluten withdrawal. Also remember to stay sufficiently hydrated, but don’t over-hydrate (as this can lead to problems). If you’ve experienced withdrawal symptoms when cutting gluten from your diet, feel free to share in the comments section below. Discuss the severity of your symptoms, what you experienced, and how long they lasted before noticing improvement.