Gluten Opioids- Is Gluten Withdrawal a Thing?

Gluten Opioids- Is Gluten Withdrawal a Thing?

Published on Thursday, August 04, 2022 by Emily Hamm

If you are eliminating gluten from your diet, have you noticed any weird symptoms similar to withdrawal (increased fatigue, moodiness, maldigestion)? 

Apparently there is a thing such as gluten withdrawal. A 1979 publication identified opioid peptides in food proteins in vitro- specifically wheat gluten and casein (JBC, 1979). Their results identified that these food proteins exhibit morphine-like activity. Later research confirmed these findings in humans. 

Before we get into the weeds of gluten opioids- let's define what gluten is. 

GLUTEN: a binding protein found in wheat and other grains that gives elasticity to the food (think soft spongy bread). 

Gluten’s structure also makes it difficult for the human body to digest resulting in peptide sequences known as exorphins (see the 6 types below) which can cause irregulation of the opioid system impacting mood, digestion and immune function (JHPN, 2015). Furthermore, wheat is considered a FODMAP because it requires more digestion, possibly leading to development of bacterial growth due to poor absorption, ultimately resulting in increased inflammation and leaky gut. So people who are sensitive to high FODMAP foods often do not tolerate gluten and follow a gluten-free diet. 

The human body makes its own opioids known as endogenous opioids (endorphins, enkephalins and dynorphins) which bind to opioid receptors to modulate acute pain, chronic pain, stress, anxiety, shame and dysphoria. What happens is gluten exorphins bind to the opioid receptors instead of the endogenous opioids leading to a mild dependence to gluten. 

6 gluten exorphins:

  • Gluten exorphin A4
  • Gluten exorphin A5 
  • Gluten exorphin B4
  • Gluten exorphin B5
  • Gluten exorphin C
  • Gliadinomorphin-7

Because gluten has these opioid like qualities, it is speculated that it may mask inflammation that is caused by gluten itself. A review of current literature suggested that individuals with asymptomatic celiac disease may not be experiencing symptoms due to the opioid activity of gluten. This could be the same for non-celiac gluten sensitivity as well, resulting in a potentially dangerous situation because people do not know that their body is inflamed due to what they are eating. 

Several Reddit threads have popped up with people talking about their gluten addiction and withdrawal symptoms when they initially started eliminating gluten from their diet. So you have it- it is possible that you may experience withdrawal symptoms given what current research says about gluten and its properties (Digestion, 2010; Nutr. Rev., 2017).

On the other hand, other research studies have shown no negative effects of long-term gluten intake on cognitive function in individuals without celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (JAMA Netw. Open, 2021) and that gluten opioids have the potential to exhibit some positive effects in human health (Int. J. Mol. Sci., 2020).

If you suspect you do not tolerate gluten, consider meeting with your medical provider and a registered dietitian to discuss an appropriate treatment plan for optimal nutrition. 

Check out this full list of gluten containing foods to provide further assistance if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

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