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

Is Wheat Addictive?

Within the Primal/paleo community and elsewhere, it’s often stated offhandedly that wheat is addictive. And absolutely, wheat for many people feels like something they could never give up. I hear it all the time: “I couldn’t live without bread.” “What would I do without cereal, dinner rolls, toast, {insert your favorite grain-based food item here}.” And wheat is often the main culprit in the sugar/insulin rollercoaster that drives sugar-burners’ need to eat (more wheat) every few waking hours. But is wheat addictive in a different sense – as an opiate like heroin and other drugs? Today I take a look at the research and attempt to separate fact from fiction. What do we really know about wheat as an opiate? Let’s find out…

Humans and other animals have something called an opioidergic system – an evolutionarily-preserved way for an organism to modulate behavior, addiction, and reward. When you exercise, for example, a lot of the euphoria you feel comes from endogenous (produced in-house) opioids interacting with your opiate receptors. This is the body’s way of dealing with a stressful experience (physical exertion), reducing pain, and it also has the effect of reinforcing a behavior that is positive, healthy, and in the organism’s best interest. The opioidergic system also interacts with the immune, endocrine, and central nervous systems (in other words, this is physiology, so it’s all interrelated), but we won’t get too much into that today. Now, it’s not just endogenous opioids interacting with our receptors; certain substances, like heroin and other opiate drugs, act as exogenous (produced out-of-house) opioids, thereby hijacking and “supercharging” our physiology. Cocaine, alcohol, and tobacco also interact with opioid receptors. The addictiveness of these substances is infamous, so these interactions exist shouldn’t surprise you.

However, there are other exogenous opioid peptides, also known as exorphins (exogenous morphine), found in substances that we don’t normally consider to be repositories of potentially addictive morphine-analogs. Like wheat.

Some of the most extensively studied food-based exorphins – gluten exorphins, from gluten, and gliadorphins, from gliadin – are derived from wheat. In a previous post, I raised the possibility of a wheat addiction. But are these exorphins actually problematic? Do they really interact with your opioid receptors to make you crave another “hit”? Well, an early 1979 paper (PDF) on the topic suggests that in order for them to actually function as in vivo opioid exorphins in our bodies, wheat exorphins must appear in our gastrointestinal tract after ingestion and during digestion, they have to survive degradation by intestinal enzymes into constituent amino acids, they have to be absorbed – intact – into the bloodstream, and they must pass the blood-brain barrier.

Do they satisfy those requirements? Let’s take a look.

When wheat is applied to conditions designed to simulate the human gut (complete with physiological amounts and proportions of stomach acid and digestive enzymes), exorphins are produced. This suggests that applying wheat to actual human stomachs (by eating it) should also produce wheat exorphins. Satisfied.

There’s also evidence that gluten exorphins do show up in the bloodstream after ingestion of wheat, at least in subjects with celiac disease (PDF). But let’s temper our conclusions; remember that celiac disease is usually characterized by a severely-compromised intestinal lining, and that the subjects who had exorphins in their blood tended to have the most intestinal damage. It remains to be seen if wheat has the same effect on people with healthy, intact intestinal linings. Satisfied and satisfied.

I was unable to find hard evidence of wheat opioids crossing the blood-brain barrier. There is this rat study, which found that gluten exorphins stimulate the secretion of prolactin (an excess of which can lead to loss of libido in both sexes) by interacting with opioid receptors located outside of the blood-brain barrier, but not inside it. On the other hand, Dr. Emily Deans says that exorphins “definitely end up in the body and brain of rats fed gluten orally.” She also uses low-dose naltrexone (an opiate blocker) to treat celiac patients who can’t seem to give up wheat, which would suggest that something’s getting through to interact with those receptors. Still, not completely satisfied.

We’ve all had people tell us “but I could never give up bread!” In my experience, and from talking to hundreds upon hundreds of newcomers and sharing emails with many more, this is common in folks going Primal. Your pastas, your breads, your pizzas, your pastries, your muffins, your cookies are the foods that people have trouble giving up and the foods that, once expunged from the diet, have the greatest tendency to cause “relapses” if eaten again. Part of it is cultural conditioning, I’m sure – the whole “staff of life” thing, the inundation from birth with the message that whole grains represent the pinnacle of healthy eating, the bread basket at dinner, the pancakes on Saturday morning, the birthday cake that you’re practically excommunicated for refusing – and part of it is the fact that wheat flour goes well with vegetable fat, refined sugar, and low prices, but I wouldn’t be surprised if wheat has addictive properties mediated through its unique exorphins.

We just can’t say that yet, not definitively. It may be addictive, but not to everyone. If your gut is permeable enough to allow passage of opioid peptides into your blood, I could see it causing problems. If your gut is healthy and intact, maybe it’s not such an issue. More research is clearly required. Still, until this all gets sorted out, I’d suggest people continue to avoid wheat and other gluten-containing grains (and heck, all grains for that matter). And if you’re going to mention the opioid stuff to any skeptics or interested parties, don’t sound too authoritative. Admit that while evidence for wheat’s addictiveness exists, it’s far from conclusive.

Besides, wheat’s not the only food whose proteins are degraded into opioid peptides (PDF):

Casein, a dairy protein, can also be cleaved to form exorphins. Human milk even contains a number of dairy exorphins, most notably beta-casomorphin (casein morphine). In fact, beta-casomorphin levels are highest in colostrum, the highly nutritious “first milk” that infants get from their mothers. Perhaps that’s a way to get babies hooked on the sweet, nutritious, essential breastmilk right off the bat? The old “bait and switch,” where you slip the customer the pure stuff, get them hooked on it, and subsequently sell them the stuff that’s been cut with filler? We don’t know for sure, but I would assume that the most nutritious, perfectly “designed” food for human infants contains opioid peptides for a very important reason.

Hemorphins, a class of opioid peptides, come from hemoglobin, a protein found in the red blood cells of vertebrates. If you like your steak bloody rare, you’re likely consuming hemoglobin, and your stomach is probably cleaving the hemoglobin up into hemorphins. Of course, since hemorphins already appear naturally in your cerebrospinal fluid, brain, and plasma, I wouldn’t necessarily worry about becoming addicted to blood sausage.

Other food compounds can act as exorphins, too. Flavonoids, those bioactive plant compounds with antioxidant properties, may interact with opioid receptors. Epicatechin, a flavonoid found in green tea and chocolate, can act like an exorphin, at least in mice. Its cardioprotective effects are even thought to be mediated through its opioid activity.

Interestingly, even spinach contains an exorphin which, along with a gluten exorphin variant, has actually been shown to improve the learning ability of rodents.

That doesn’t mean you should pound spinach and wheat gluten before finals week and hope for a miracle. It also doesn’t mean that you should avoid chocolate and give your baby formula instead of breastmilk because you’re worried about addiction. It simply means that the effects of food exorphins aren’t clear-cut. They aren’t necessarily “bad.”

I’m definitely anti-wheat. I think people eat way too much of it, and it appears to perpetuate its own consumption. I wish I could say definitively whether wheat is addictive as an opiate or not – but I can’t. Not yet.

What say you, folks? Were you addicted to wheat? Are you? What about any of the other foods that break down into opioid exorphins – any spinach addicts out there?

Thanks for reading.

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. I was certainly NOT addicted to grains. Dropping them was rather easy, despite the fact that I neither did the shopping nor cooked dinner. I just quietly declined to take bread, had eggs for breakfast instead of cereal/oatmeal, and made salads for lunch instead of sandwiches.

    Bill C wrote on July 19th, 2012
  2. I guess what we can take from this is that the true problem lies between the ears. I know that’s been my issue and I still struggle with cutting down on the grains. If you can eliminate that then I think the battle’s all but won. But it is a struggle.

    Peter H wrote on July 19th, 2012
  3. I’m a great-grandmother and have been on paleo for about two months now. I can relate to the people who are being pushed to eat. My own mother pushes food at me. When I asked her if she would push a drink on an alcoholic, her answer was that she would if she thought she needed it. I think many people have this mindset but aren’t as honest as my mother. I just tell people that I do not eat such and such and thank them for the offer. I don’t and never have pushed food of any kind on my children or their children.
    I feel much better and apparently have become fat adapted as I seldom eat more than two meals a day now. If I get hungry mid-day I have a few asparagus, a handful of nuts, and a few olives.

    Patricia Kilbourn wrote on July 19th, 2012
  4. One easy way to deal with food at the office: Treats are almost always brought in first thing in the morning. I always take a helping and explain that it “looks delicious!” and the “I can’t wait to eat this after my lunch!”. Then I place it on my desk until lunchtime when it discreetly goes into the trash can when no one is looking.

    Kirstin wrote on July 20th, 2012
  5. I gave up flour and sugar when I joined a weight-loss organization. The thing I miss most is pasta. An Italian child, I was raised on pasta, and I love it. But since I cannot eat a normal portion, I completely gave it up. It’s hell for me, but in order to maintain my lifestyle (and my 130 lb. weight loss), I have to do it. It’s been seven years, and I miss my pasta every day. Giving up sugar was not nearly as bad, even though it’s my belief that sugar is also addictive. (That includes artificial sugar.)

    Marilyn wrote on July 20th, 2012
  6. If someone offers me a cigarette, I say, “No thanks, I don’t smoke.” If someone wants me to eat wheat, I treat it the same way. It’s not such a big deal. MY attitude always determines the reaction I get from others.

    Dr Laura wrote on July 20th, 2012
  7. The first night after I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, I dreamed I was cooking a huge pot of spaghetti. It’s still the high-carb food I miss the most.

    Now living with lifelong type 2 diabetes, I am shocked at how others feel entitled to decide what is good for me. At a dinner with friends who knew I am diabetic, salad dressing with “a little bit” of sugar was served by a well-meaning participant. What does that phrase mean, “A little bit won’t hurt you”? How dare they presume to know this? I am managing a life-threatening disease every day. No one else has the right to decide what amount of any substance will or will not harm me.

    Anna wrote on July 20th, 2012
  8. Wow, 6 pages of comments in two days? Not a sensitive issue at all!

    Personally, when I’m eating primally, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything by not having wheat.. Sugary things though (Damn you, ice cream!) are my downfall – and if I give in to the craving for sugar, it’s 3 days of constant sugar/wheat/carbs in general cravings until I get back on the bandwagon. Furthermore, the act of eating those kinds of foods is rarely satisfying – it’s just not as good as I remember! Overall, I’ve found it’s just so much easier to abstain. The dairy stays though. Mama needs her some cheese!

    Foncine wrote on July 20th, 2012
  9. I gave up sugar a year ago and grains six months ago. My workmates are very supportive they are always on a “diet”‘ they have commented on my weightloss, but have not cared to embrace the Paleo way of eating. I can say that I still think about bread, but I know if I eat any at all, it’s immediate brain fog. I can’ t believe the mental clarity I have and not prepared to forsake that for a doughnut. It has only taken 50 years to finally feel the best I have in my life.

    Helen wrote on July 20th, 2012
  10. A total dumbhead article backed-up with many dumbheat comments.
    Author, — can you back this up with a short history of wheat consumption and cultivation by man?
    This wheat intolerance business, so much reminds me of many fashionable manias. The ‘Pet Rock’ Hula Hoop, Medieval Flagellation and shall I go on?

    IndianaJohn wrote on July 20th, 2012
  11. Wheat is addictive, no doubt about. The withdrawal I felt the first few weeks was intense, painful but the withdrawal is what keeps me primal because I don’t want to go through it again. Also found out I was gluten intolerant. I avoid all grains @99% of the time. The few times I eat a little bite of something with wheat in it is not worth the tummy ache later.

    Linda wrote on July 20th, 2012
  12. i like it. wheat is one of nutrient food .i agre there is some thing special about bread href=””>fitnessonline

    shopping fitness wrote on July 21st, 2012
  13. I gave up wheat twelve years ago and still find it hard to turn down baked offerings proferred proudly by dear friends who have clearly put a lot of time and effort into their creations.

    Strangely, on the rare occasions when I succumb, I find that along with stomach cramps and a headache I have memory loss and a strange inability to talk coherently. Wheat affects me really strangely.

    Jilly wrote on July 21st, 2012
  14. I don’t know if I’m addicted to wheat, in particular, but I am addicted to carbs, especially empty carbs. I can go on a healthy diet for a long time, but once I slip up and eat those bad foods, I totally gorge.

    Christine Mattice wrote on July 21st, 2012
  15. As far as i’m concerned wheat (grains) is 100% addictive, at least for me. I see it as my enemy now, quite literally because when i’m around it it’s truely a battle of the wills not to stuff my face with it. I need to remember how sick it makes me and how amazing I feel without it.

    Vee wrote on July 22nd, 2012
  16. Many of the comments here, with descriptions of the aftereffects of wheat consumption reflect the case studies cited in “Wheatbelly” by Dr. William Davis. I am in the middle of the book, and many of the symptoms here are shared with Davis’ patients. In addition, the morphine-like actions of gliadin are described in exactly the term titling this blog: addictive.
    I agree with many of you who have fallen off the wheat-free wagon. It is all too easy to fall off, not so much getting back on. Like an alcoholic, one bite is too much, the whole cake (or box of doughnuts, etc.) is not enough.

    Barrie wrote on July 22nd, 2012
  17. I believe it’s addictive. I had experienced major withdrawals when I stopped consuming it (headaches, extreem fatigue, what felt like depression, and mood swings). The withdrawal seemed to last for a couple of weeks for me. I don’t know, but anything that can cause a withdrawal like that, I don’t want in my body ever again (same goes for caffeine which I also stopped consuming recently).

    Lea wrote on July 25th, 2012
  18. I went gluten and cow’s milk free over 13 years ago when I first began eating according to my blood type – O – which means no wheat or dairy and few grains. One positive thing was I stopped falling asleep whenever I sat for more than 20 minutes or so. For years, I smuggled cold caffienated drinks into class, church, etc with me – as well as while driving to try to (unsuccessfully) keep me from falling asleep. Tests for hypoglycemia and others never resulted in anything that helped. I found out later that I do have celiac disease, so therefore have a very compromised digestive system.I have begun wondering if the gluten and lactose being improperly digested produced an opiate-type affect such that it caused me to fall asleep. Has not happened in years, I am happy to say. Am wondering if anyone else has had the same thing happen to them.

    Job wrote on July 25th, 2012
  19. I’m a vegan, but never thought of wheat as addictive or bad for you. This has been eye opening.

    Phil L wrote on July 25th, 2012
  20. I would love to try to coconut cake recipe mentioned above. There do I find it?

    GINGER wrote on July 29th, 2012
  21. Ha Ha! (hand raised). I eat a (5oz.) 2Cups bowl of steamed spinach every morning. I love it.
    And eat a healthy portion of steamed Kale or Swiss Chard with my other meals in the day.
    I’ve been gluten/wheat free for a solid year now and feel better with every day.
    It took a good six to nine months of retraining myself to change my eating style; it certainly doesn’t happen over night.
    And the biggest adjustment for me was to finally figure out that it’s not about finding replacement foods for the ones I eliminated but rather to eat in a way that supports my health, period.

    Great article by the way. Thank you!

    You As A Machine wrote on July 29th, 2012
  22. Why would it need to cross the blood brain barrier to be considered addictive? What about all of the receptors that are in the gut? What about the fact that we have more neuro-receptors in our gut? What about the gut-brain axis?

    Hosanna Manley wrote on July 29th, 2012
  23. Hey, Mark, regarding your subject, is wheat addictive,I would have said yes before going off it. Wheat was my mainstay and my comfort food. I didn’t want to give up bread, pasta (I’m Italian for gosh sakes) or pastries. I really didn’t believe I could stop eating them. Then I got a nasal polyp that requires that I reduce all mucus all the time, or live with headaches and congestion, all the time. I moved the grains out with no problem at all. Even my sweetie went off them tho he loves grains and has no medical issues with them, that we know of. So I would have to say that for me, and for my husband, no, it’s not addictive. Now sugar….

    Karen wrote on August 9th, 2012

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