The decision to remove gluten – a protein found in wheat, barley and rye – from your diet is a huge lifestyle change that requires vigilance and determination. Just as there are many different responses to ingesting gluten, there are a number of reactions the body can have to removing it. For many people, their symptoms disappear immediately and they are instantly rewarded for their decision to go gluten free. For others, symptoms may intensify for a period of time as the body readjusts to life without gluten.
A gluten intolerance is any form of immune response to ingesting the gluten protein. There are multiple immune responses to gluten including an autoimmune reaction – known as celiac disease – an allergic reaction and what is now being called a non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The rates of gluten intolerance are growing, with an estimated 1 percent of the population now suffering from celiac disease and an estimated 18 million people – or 6 percent of the U.S. population – now believed to have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Symptoms of a gluten intolerance can include diarrhea, foggy mind, joint pain, skin problems and psycho-emotional issues.
Withdrawing from gluten can have the same effect as removing an addictive substance – when those with an intolerance ingest gluten, it stimulates a release of corticosteroids like adrenaline. The body becomes addicted to the rush of corticosteroids it receives from eating gluten and many people report a drug-like withdrawal period when removing gluten that can last up to three or four days. Another reason that removing gluten from the diet cold turkey can produce withdrawal symptoms – including fatigue, headaches and painful joints – is that gluten is broken down into gluteomorphin, an analog to opiate drugs, according to immunologist and researcher Aristo Vojdani.
After years of combating a daily invader – which is basically how the immune system of a gluten-sensitive person responds to ingesting gluten – the immune system can become hyperreactive. In removing gluten, the body may experience a difficult transition as it learns to calm down in the absence of a chronic stressor. As the body flushes the toxins associated with a gluten intolerance, some of the peripheral symptoms such as skin breakouts and headaches may get worse for a period before they get better. The immune system and body as a whole can then come back into greater homeostasis, and most people experience a significant reduction or elimination of their symptoms within one to six months of the gluten removal.
Don't be deterred by the idea that a gluten withdrawal will be too difficult. There may be a few days of intense discomfort and a few weeks or months of detoxification as your body adjusts. After the initial transition, most people feel like they have a new lease on life. If you are planning to remove gluten, set aside a few days in which you can just relax. Drink plenty of water and eat simple foods like vegetable broths and fresh fruits as your body releases toxins. Do something special for yourself if you are having withdrawal symptoms like soaking in the bath or listening to your favorite relaxing music. Remember, gluten withdrawal is temporary, but the health of your body will benefit for the long term.