Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
19 Nov

Grain Pain

Bowl of Oats and GranolaI’ve been grain-free for nearly three years now. Oh, every once in a while, I’ll have a bite or two of bread at a restaurant (it had better be really good bread though and even then I’ll still douse it with olive oil or real butter) or a couple of chips with guacamole – mostly just as a vehicle for delivering the precious emerald mixture to my mouth. I might even have a few sushi rolls with sticky white rice from time to time. But for the most part I stay far away from grains. No cereal ever, no pasta ever, no wheat, barley, rye, corn or anything of that sort. My exodus from grains was gradual, starting about five years ago, but it increased in fervor and resolve as I discovered more and more through my research how inappropriate grains were as a component of the human diet.

All throughout my youth and just up until a few years ago, I had also suffered from occasional intense, sometimes debilitating, gastrointestinal cramping that I had always chalked up to stress. The classic Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS. You know how some people claim to carry stress in their necks, their groin or their shoulders? I simply believed I carried stress in my gut and that that was the main cause of my IBS. I missed school some days as a kid. I’d take a day off work once in a while years later. I even missed races occasionally as a result of it. As recently as three years ago, I spent several sleepless nights doubled over in excruciating pain during a stressful period when I was producing 50 episodes of my TV show within a very compressed time frame. As I look back now, I was still eating bread (sandwiches) and whole wheat rolls (at dinner) during that time. Hmmm.

I had basically lived on grains for 50 years, during 20 of which I had to cram down all the bread, pasta, rolls and cereal I could to obtain the 1,000 grams of carbs a day I needed to fuel my athletic pursuits. On a day-to-day basis, I felt fine. In all that time it had never occurred to me that my gut-wrenching stress episodes might have also had something to do with grains in my diet. I didn’t make the connection because I could go for many months at a time without an IBS episode, and yet I always had the grains in my diet. It wasn’t until I completely eliminated grains that any form of IBS fully disappeared – even during very recent times of significant stress. So it wasn’t just the grains and it wasn’t just the stress; it was the two combined that set off the alarm bells.

I had a real experience of that again just last week, though, and the connection became even more apparent. I was off on an organized weekend “self-discovery” retreat. I had signed up on the advice of a good friend and really had no idea what I was in for, except that it would be somewhere up in the mountains and we would be challenged on multiple levels. A few hours into the first night I realized that for the next few days one of the challenges would be the Spartan diet of nothing but granola, water and a few slices of fruit. My first inclination was to forgo these meager victuals and use this as a fasting (IF) weekend, but not knowing whether we were in for “Survivor”-type challenges, long nights shivering in the cold or forced 15-mile marches, I decided I might need the calories in whatever form I could take them. So I started downing the granola with the rest of the participants. I knew what I was doing, but I thought “how bad could three servings of rolled oats each day possibly be?” Oh, Lordy.

Everything was copacetic for the first 24 hours, but by Sunday morning, I was noticing a sensation I had thankfully not experienced for three years – the doubling over in pain and the urge to purge. By the end of the course Sunday afternoon, I was completely preoccupied with the pain and unable to participate in any of the post-event discussions as I tried to meditate my way to a “happy place”. Several trips to the bathroom provided only marginal relief, and it wasn’t until I got in my car to drive home Sunday night that I could see light at the end of the tunnel. The cramping continued sporadically well into Monday and only subsided as I resumed my regular diet.

I tell you all this to reiterate that the problems that arise from eating grains aren’t always obvious. As I have said here, the fact that you can eat grains for years and manifest no symptoms doesn’t mean they are not having some small insidious effect. In my case, it has always been the combination of stress and grains that has caused the red flags to go up, but I think there was always something going on even when it didn’t manifest itself in IBS. In the three years since I have been grain-free, the arthritis in my fingers – that I had already had for five years and had always assumed to be a natural result of getting older – has disappeared. I never get sick anymore, even when I’m stressed. I maintain my body fat level so easily it’s almost criminal. Yes, these could be due to other factors as well, but this past weekend really opened my eyes once again.

Further Reading:

The Definitive Guide to Grains

2 Minute Salad Video

My Knee is Killing Me… No Really.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. just came across. Nice blog

    stephanie wrote on December 18th, 2008
  2. hi, i just wanted to say how impressed i am with all of you for finding out what things to take out of your diet,as its not at all easy. and i think its disguisting that doctors dont do more. its such a horrible thing to go through (ibs) until you gain some control) the times i have cried around shopping,and felt like my life wasnt worth living!! though maybe im a big baby i dont know. i have been mentally messed up from my experience,scared to leave the house early and not confident to get a job where i start early,i feel robbed. maybe im yet to discover what will really help me. can i ask if anyone else has omeprazole? or simelar tablets, i find my stomach makes too much acid which also really sets my insides on fir without these tablets :0( thanks all x

    carli wrote on May 19th, 2009
  3. It’s true. I have severe IBS and whole grains can make IBS worse.

    Dawn wrote on September 3rd, 2009
  4. I’m going to take this advice to my wife, who has been suffering from IBS for two years, now. Thanks.

    Michael wrote on October 13th, 2009
  5. I would totally second this post, Mark (I know I’m a bit late in responding!). I cut out all grains and all dairy from my diet 17 days ago and I feel wonderful. I always had ‘something going on’ intestinally and the first time I experienced IBS cramps, once i had picked myself up off the floor, I truly expected to find a huge pool of blood there, the pain was so intense.

    For several years I’ve had to carry around ibuprofen and mebeverine with me ‘just in case’ – now I am free of it all.

    On top of that, I am just having my first ‘monthly visitor’ with absolutely no pain, cramps, PMS, bloating – this will be the first time in my whole adult life that this is the case. Again, free of it all…

    Thank you.

    PrimalK wrote on October 21st, 2009
  6. I’m free of Crohn’s Disease after stopping the consumption of grains, most importantly, the gluten…..

    BlazeKING wrote on November 10th, 2009
  7. I had to look twice to make sure this post was written by Mark. I’m heartened to hear the primal guru confess that he occasionally noshes on a little bread or a few chips.

    Sonagi wrote on November 22nd, 2009
  8. Hi Mark,

    My IBS started in my mid teens; It left me doubled over in pain, screaming into a pillow. The pain, as you know, was absolutely awful.

    It got worse in my early 20’s. The pain radiated to my lower back; I would have ‘spasms’ of pain that would last for HOURS: radiating from my bowels to my back. I was in so much pain I wanted to die. I actually thought there was something wrong with my back, and spent two years visiting four different chiropractors. Big waste of time and money there.

    I started eating on the Zone a few years ago, and that made all the difference. I wasn’t a perfect Zoner, but it still helped. As of yesterday, I officially started on the PB.

    I’ve been a little concerned about the BIG ASS SALAD causing intestinal discomfort. It has caused a little discomfort. But perhaps it’s my gut not being used to so much RAW food in one sitting?

    I’m very curious to see how my IBS pans out. Thanks so much for this post! I’m so glad to see there are so many others dealing with the same crap (pun INTENDED).

    Loving the blog, Mark. I’m hooked!

    pat wrote on December 9th, 2009
  9. Great Advice. I can feel the pounds dropping with no grains in my system. I was just wondering what are some good alternatives for breakfast, since I have only ever eaten cereal or toast in the morning.

    Dave wrote on May 8th, 2010
    • Dave,
      I just started eating Primal so I am still trying new things. For breakfast I have found I really like mixing a few berries, anything you like, with greek yogurt and a few walnuts. The yogurt is a little bitter at first so you might drizzle just a little organic honey on it until you get used to the flavor. KC

      Kim wrote on May 8th, 2010
  10. I too suffer from the agonizing pains that Mark described, as well as a long history of heartburn due to reflex. Since going primal 3 months ago, not only has my body fat percentage been going down, but I have been able to stop taking my medication. However, in the last couple of weeks stress at work has gotten to me and here are the pains again. Mark, do you ever get them just due to stress or am I missing something from the blueprint? I do like squash, but my carbs are averageing 100g a day and NO bread, pasta or rice/potatoes etc. Maybe I just need a vacation!!

    Stef wrote on June 2nd, 2010
  11. Great post Mark! I just had a recent experience of indulging in non primal food and I paid the price of it. I am sort of happy I did this though because I felt like crap that night and even for the next day or 2. I learned my lesson as I will never ever do this again in my lifetime.

    I was at my cousins graduation party and the main dish was pasta along with grilled pizza. There was fruit too, along with salad and some veggies but not much of it.

    Again, I learned my lesson!

    Primal Toad wrote on June 16th, 2010
  12. I don’t know if anyone is still reading this post…but I have had terrible intestinal discomfort with being primal. I had as well been diagnosed with IBS in my teens (in my thirties now) and was hoping Primal would clear it all up. But as I say- I was more sick then ever. I had terrible, terrible cramps and pain. I gave up after three weeks and ate some brown rice for a few days and felt 80% better. Now I am really stuggling. I believe in the health benefits of being Primal but I don’t know about my gut.

    Jen wrote on August 23rd, 2010
    • Jen,

      I have found that it depends on what food I’m eating. Some fibrous raw veggies kill my gut and give me the terrible cramps (stress brings it on too). What does your primal plan look like? Are you heavy on the veggie? Fatty meat? For me, I can’t eat much in the way of raw vegetables or I’m keeled over and feel like I’m about to give birth! Veggies that do it to me are: raw spinach (and man do i love spinach salad), cabbage, broccoli, and uncooked or underdone asparagus. Does any one thing set you off?

      Stef wrote on August 24th, 2010
  13. Stef thanks so much for replying!! Yes – it feels like you are giving birth!! I was doing a lot of big salads as raw spinach as the base. So- good to know I should maybe cut that out. I am really in to baking with almond, coconut, etc meal so I start my day with a muffin with some various “meal” and blueberries. Otherwise I was doing a lot of variations of soup- chicken thighs with all sorts of veggies. So yes- heavy on veggies but I guess I need to keep them cooked. Not too heavy on fatty meats but I eat a TON of nuts. Besides my baking with the nut meal I eat handfuls throughout the day. I was eating a good amount of strawberries but I think I am finding slowly that my gut doesn’t like strawberries.
    Maybe I need to start over and make sure I cook everything. Any other hints or suggestions are welcome. I did try Greek yogurt and while it is extremely delicious it is a no no. Right now I am doing two primal meals a day and one brown rice meal and I am feeling ok but I would love to go back to all primal.

    Jen wrote on August 24th, 2010
    • Hey Jen,

      A friend of mine mentioned that the seeds in strawberries and raspberries aggravate her IBS…I don’t experience that but though I’d pass it along. I am sure that with a bit of tweaking and experimenting you can find the primal fit. :)

      Stef wrote on August 24th, 2010
    • Hi Jen,

      You mention eating lots of nuts. Ground and handfuls as snacks. I have a bad intestinal reaction to nuts, you may be having it too. I started low-carb by doing nuts as snacks, it was bad! I’m doing 80-90% paleo, but no nuts, and I’m feeling great.

      HB wrote on April 30th, 2013
  14. I was diagnosed with IBS a year ago (I’m 21). Since then I tried everything and I mean almost everything (vegan, vegetarian, macrobiotic, insoluble fiber free diet) in an addition to some stress management in an attempt to get rid of the symptoms. I went primal three weeks ago after researching the diet. I must say that I’ve noticed significant increases in my energy levels, especially compared to my vegetarian days. However, even though I’ve seen significant improvement in some of my IBS symptoms (gas and bloating), I have not been able to completely get rid of my IBS symptoms (constipation). I have noticed that steamed broccoli and cauliflower certainly aggravate my symptoms and I will avoid them. I’m not sure what else to do though.

    Does anyone have any advice?

    Rebecca wrote on November 8th, 2010
    • I thought I’d tried everything too! you may want to look into fructose malabsorbtion or FODMAP intollerance. Certain fruit and veg contain types of carbohydrates that some ppl can’t absorb and cause IBS symptoms. Cauliflower is one of these veg. Sticking to a primal diet and avoiding foods high in FODMAPS I’m now symptom free for the first time in years

      Bern wrote on November 9th, 2010
  15. Hi Rebecca,
    I was going to suggest following the SIBO (SCD) diet. After a quick google search it appears that low FODMAP diet is the same or very similiar. at one point i followed this cookbook “Eat well, Feel well” for the SCD diet for about a month. it might have been the only month in my life where i felt like a normal person (I am 32). It was a lot of cooking and carrying around prepared food so i fell off the wagon. i am still playing around with my diet but being 100% gluten free and as primal as possible helps. But don’t get discouraged. I am still finding things that hurt my stomach as well so it takes some time. I think you are on the right path though…

    Jen wrote on November 9th, 2010
  16. I’ve read extensively about grains and inflammatory bowel and the connection to aches pains joints and related cascading body issues.

    Here’s my question – many cultures around the world rely on grains for the basis of their diet. Have to. Cheap carbs and no access to good proteins.

    China, India, most of the Far East, most of the Eurasia, virtually all of Africa … grain based diets.

    But there isn’t a corresponding health crisis in these cultures suffused with grains.

    This observable fact is at odds with the above data. And causes me to wonder why grains, here and in England but not Europe, per se, are a source of IBD, but not elsewhere.

    Please don’t throw out a snap-answer. This has been a 20+ year investigation, casual yes, but still the amount of reading I’ve done is extensive and the problem is Here … not so much elsewhere. Virtually non-existent in heavily grain based cultures.

    Jack wrote on January 21st, 2011
    • Soaking, sprouting, fermentation, less harmful grains. White rice is pretty much harmless (just empty calories), while modern wheat is much higher in gluten & such than its ancestors.

      Sofie wrote on August 19th, 2011
  17. Agree w/ the last poster, I think there are always advantages and disadvantages in all diets – though I like (the taste) of the paleo diet very much 😉 The only thing that consistently seemed to help me so far is simply eating small amounts (no matter of what) frequently, going close to a liquid diet when it’s bad (juiced pineapple, ginger etc.) and frequent light exercise (do not sit longer than 1-2 hours at a time) to give the intestines time to heal and the acid to balance out.

    Marco wrote on January 21st, 2011
  18. What’s that idiom? One man’s meat is another man’s poison?

    I’m pushing 60, been 160 lbs since high school, feel pretty good and race Mt. Bikes quite successfully against all ages, and love grains. Millet’s a favorite because of it’s higher alkalinity. I believe in what Dr. Henry Bieler (Food is Your Best Medicine) advised that dis-ease can’t live in a higher alkaline body. In fact, research suggests that cancer can not live in high alkalinity.

    My point here is that there are many bodies out there and just as many have been abused with prescribed/non-prescribed drugs, texting (yeah, that’s right), alcohol, GMO foods, obesity, non organic foods, fluoride, junk food, stress, and the list goes on and on and on. Let’s face it, we are all in need of physical, emotional, mental healing on some level, especially in America. I for one, highly recommend grains in moderation, along with organic non-GMO: vegies, fruits, some meat proteins, i.e. 80 alkaline foods. Also, enemas, colonics, massage, chiropractic work, acupuncture, Rife machine, and similar alternative methods. Oh, and stay away from 95% of AMA type doctors unless it’s to fix that broken finger. That’s my medicine, and my hair is still brown and I look much younger than my age.

    Thanks for the article, though.

    European American wrote on January 21st, 2011
  19. I read this article last week and thinking that this made sense I decided to run an experiment on myself. I haven’t had any IBS symptoms for at least three or four months and I attributed this to an improved diet generally and cutting out beer entirely, which has been a trigger in the past.

    I had a half of a can of steel cut oats in the pantry, the twenty minutes to cook kind, so I figured that if anything would bear out Mark’s theory it would be those. I decided I would eat a 1/3 cup serving every day until they were gone. Thankfully I finished them yesterday.

    The experiment ran for five days and each day the situation with my bowels deteriorated noticeably. By the fifth day I managed to achieve a full blown, albeit mild, IBS episode. Fun times.

    I realize this isn’t exactly a scientific study and that correlation isn’t causation, but the correlation is strong enough to convince me that I should probably be avoiding grains at lot more consciously.

    Thanks for the site and the good info!

    Patrick wrote on January 27th, 2011
  20. I can say that in one day of not eating grains I feel instantly lighter, full of energy and no bloating. The thought of them makes me feel uneasy now. I see them as dirty now. I’m not exaggerating but if I eat grains the next morning I look and feel flabbier. My bro has IBS and I think there may be a disposition in the family towards some sort of gluten intolerance as my Dad also has IBS and both of them love their bread. We all put weight on around the belly too and I know that this is due to grains. So far though, they won’t listen to me.

    Polecatz wrote on April 29th, 2011
  21. Hi everyone, ive been reading the comments here, I was diagnosed with IBS 2 years ago, I get mild stomach pains every day and the occasional serve one, I’ve recently started getting into the primal blue print, and it’s encouraging too see many people who have removed their IBS symptoms by cutting out grains, I was hoping for some advice I’ve read in a few places cutting out grains and sugar is the best way to get rid of IBS
    Does this include the natural sugar in fruit?
    This may sound crazy starting to the primal diet but Ive never been a big fan of meat I was hoping to eat mainly veg with little bits of meat occasional I’m just hoping I’ll gain the same benefits any advice is really appreciated good luck to you all


    Olly wrote on May 12th, 2011
  22. I’ve been on a low carb diet for about a year now and have lost about 65 lbs. About 4 months ago I read how grains may effect your skin and I’ve had skin problems for many years. So I decided to go grain free an it has made an amazing difference and cleared up my skin problems. However, since I’ve been grain free I now have chronic constipation. I eat fruits and vegetables and increased my water intake and even started taking fiber supplements but nothing helps. It looks like my only option is to start eating grains again. I can’t take this any longer.

    Larry wrote on August 1st, 2011
  23. Mark,

    I didn’t mean to act unprofessional a month ago regarding your lack of credentials. I said some inappropiate things attacking your credentials.
    I am just someone who is “fact and science-oriented” and try to stick to organizations like the AHA, JAMA, Mayo Clinic, etc. I am teacher and I try to promote healthy eating to kids.

    I experimented with your primitive diet and have seen improvements in my IBS symptoms and even lowered stress. I am less hyper and more relaxed on your diet. I definitely have a reduction in stomach issues like gas, bloating, cramps, etc.

    Further research is needed to see if this primitive diet is a healthy long-term approach. I know the AHA doesn’t approve of high protein diets — but who knows maybe some day.

    I know you work very hard at creating a website, business, and to promote your ideas with a passion and zeal.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas with everyone.

    Todd wrote on September 25th, 2011
  24. Good God. This is so true! I had some sausages at a friend’s house, who was aware of my diet and said she’d notify her mum, who was doing the cooking. So I ate the stuff that promised to be grain-free. Little did I know that she forgot to tell her mum, who bought ordinary, breadcrumb-filled sausage. I spent most of the next day on the toilet and doubled up in pain with what sounded like the entire symphony orchestra in my gut. Sorry for the sordid details, but it was bad. And I wasn’t even one of the ‘gluten-intolerant’ people before I went primal. Urgh, never again.

    Milla wrote on December 5th, 2011
  25. I’ve been reading about IBS, as I was just recently diagnosed (previously wrong diagnosed with celiac! no celiac, but I am very gluten intolerant). So, while I’ve been primal (90% probably) for a long time, I’m now reading that low fat is better for IBS symptoms! Not cool!
    I’m curious if that’s really the route I need to go or if I can keep on eating my bacon. Any experiences/resources on this? Thanks!

    Kirstin wrote on May 24th, 2012
  26. my quest to stop the terrible terrible stomach pain, and incessant heaving/puking in the morning started about a year and a half ago, where i made the major switch of just being generally more “healthy”. By that, i mean by mostly conventional wisdom standards, cut all the obviously terribly unhealthy stuff (which wasn’t much), the sodas with meals when i went out (didn’t really drink soda outside of that) and eating fruits/veggies/nuts for snacks. My stomach started feeling much much better, but still would get painful in the morning during super-stress times (but not as often). One thing i didn’t realize with all of this “healthier” eating… was that, in general, i was consuming ALOT less grains, they were still there, sometimes in great excess, but usually very little.
    since about the beginning of the month(jul2012), i’ve made the move to a “paleo” style diet, mostly influenced by PB, etc.
    It only took a few days, maybe a week, and all of the pain went away, making me think that it really might be the grains setting me off. I was proved right last week when i was on vacation, i went and got two slices of pizza with a friend (not even a gluten-free offering or anything there) they were delicious. of course. But then, the next day, not even that morning, took longer than that, later in the evening, and the following few days, back to the same terrible pain, heaving, etc.
    After that, i was about convinced, that it was FOR SURE the grains, and after reading this, i am convinced. Thank you for this article mark, you have no idea how much it helps to hear this.

    Aaron Lobnitz wrote on July 18th, 2012
  27. Thank you for sharing this experience Mark. I have had intermittent IBS for the past few years, although I’ve been eating grains my entire life (I’m 31 years old). I was previously unsure what the problem was and just realized it was IBS. I have been wheat free, and mostly grain free for a while now, and decided to eat some pasta that I had in the cupboard last night. HUGE mistake. I’ve been in excruciating pain for the past 5 hours. I made the connection with grains and IBS. So I decided to do some searching when I found your blog. I’m glad I found this, you have confirmed my connection of IBS with wheat/grains. I will not be eating grains again!

    I’d also like to note that in my searching, I found many many MANY people with this problem! (Pain under the left rib and back pain) There are so many people suffering with this, not knowing that the problem is simply grain! And those people will most likely not get properly diagnosed and treated from a doctor. The same goes for obesity and other diseases.

    Thanks again! I’ll bookmark your blog.

    Josh wrote on January 12th, 2013
  28. I was diagnosed with ibs a few years ago. Did research and found ibs diets, doctors also gave me different diets, I never knew what to eat. I’ve also been diagnosed with GERD, asthma, allergies, arthritis and was diagnosed as a pre-diabetic. NONE of the diets given to me for these match up. I gave up. Ate whatever I wanted to, living in pain with the stomach issues and missing work and gaining weight and getting out of shape. I can date back to when all of this started, it was a medical issue I had that started all of it (but the asthma and arthritis, though both became worse after). Before this incident, I had been doing Atkins with a lot success, afterwards, it didn’t work. I was still eating low carb grains. A friend turned me on to this a few weeks ago and I’m having a rough start, but I am excited to see what the results will be! Thank you for sharing this, Mark, as it gives me hope!

    Stephanie wrote on March 20th, 2013
  29. Thanks for the informative, helpful post, Mark! I’m researching nutrition-related info to help my 12 year old that has just been diagnosed with IBS. Great info :)

    Kathleen wrote on March 21st, 2013

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