The Amazing Brain Benefits of Going Grain-Free

Plus, 7 tips for starting your grain-free journey.

September 8, 2014
brain health

Since the Wheat Belly revolution, people all over the world have reported amazing results: being able to reverse type 2 diabetes, shedding layers of dangerous visceral body fat that encases the organs, and revving up to super-charged energy levels. But we started to wonder, how does ditching wheat—and all grains for that matter—impact the brain? We turned to William Davis, MD, author of Wheat Belly 10-Day Grain Detox and the best-selling Wheat Belly, to learn more about the benefits of the grainless brain.

More: Want All Your Grain Questions Answered? Join Dr. Davis FREE Wheat Belly Webinar

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The concept is quite simple—although removing grains from your life could be a bit tough, thanks to the fact that they're in so many foods and we've become addicted to them. That's where Dr. Davis' new total health plan comes into play. "Remove grains from your diet, and your brain is released from the control of their mind-active components. It is liberating, wonderful, and empowering," he says. "Your brain can be restored to its normal alert, energetic, calculating, and creative state."

Dr. Davis explains the incredible ways your brain could heal (after withdrawal) when you cut grains from your diet:

Improved Mood
Addicted to bread? That could be while you're feeling lousy most of the time. Once the depression that can accompany the withdrawal that affects about 40 percent of people going grain-free is past, there is typically a substantial lifting of mood. This develops due to the removal of gliadin and other prolamin protein-derived exorphins, as well as increased levels of brain serotonin.

People are happier and more optimistic, and they become better engaged with the people and activities in their lives. Some people experience such dramatic improvements of mood that they are able to free themselves from suicidal thoughts and antidepressant medications, Dr. Davis notes.

Be careful returning to wheat and other grains when you've been off of them, though. "Dark, suicidal thoughts appear to be among the most easily re-provoked thoughts with any grain reexposure. People who experience this effect, for instance, report being plagued by a week of suicidal thoughts after a single intentional or inadvertent episode of grain exposure," Dr. Davis says. "Meticulous avoidance is therefore key." (He notes that anyone taking an antidepressant medication will need to consult with his or her healthcare provider before any effort to reduce or change medication is undertaken, as a trained healthcare professional is required to make good decisions in this area.)

Reduced Anxiety
Unfortunately, low-level anxiety plagues many people. Dr. Davis says that typically, such anxieties recede with grain removal. For some, the effect can be dramatic and life changing, sometimes even providing relief from years of phobias such as agoraphobia, the fear of leaving home, or claustrophobia, the fear of closed spaces. (Grain does more than impact your brain. It could be the root of your annoying skin problems, too!)

Lifted Mind Fog
Like the lifting of mood, a lifting of brain fog is also a common grain-free experience. People report that they are better able to concentrate for prolonged periods and are able to think more clearly, make decisions more easily, and speak more effectively. Writers are able to write for longer periods; artists are able to draw, paint, or compose more easily; businesspeople can engage in discussion, perform at meetings, and prepare documents more effectively; and athletes are able to sustain concentration for a longer time and become less reliant on performance crutches such as energy drinks and protein bars. This effect applies to children just as much as adults. Some of the most dramatic stories I've heard have come from parents who report that their children's school performance skyrocketed when they were freed from the fogginess of grain consumption.

Enhanced Learning
Restoration of the capacity for prolonged concentration, clearer thinking, and reduced distractibility add up to an enhanced ability to learn. People listen more effectively, retain more with reading, acquire and synthesize data and concepts with greater ease, and enjoy enhanced recall. They are more focused, more creative, and more effective.

Reversal of Seizures
As seizures have been associated with grain consumption, especially consumption of wheat, removal of grains can be associated with relief from seizures if grains were the initiating cause. "Most commonly, sufferers of temporal lobe seizures experience a marked reduction or complete relief from these episodes. Although the causal association between grains and grand mal seizures is more tenuous, I am hearing from more and more people who have experienced marked relief from these dangerous events, as well," Dr. Davis says.

Reversal of Neurological Impairment
Dr. Davis reports that people with cerebellar ataxia usually experience a slow, gradual improvement in coordination, balance, capacity to walk, and bladder control, or at least experience no further deterioration, after grains are eliminated. "Likewise, the pain or impaired feelings of peripheral neuropathy recede slowly or stop progressing," he says. "Because the nervous system is slow to heal and may do so imperfectly, the process can take months to years, so a long-term commitment is required to gauge improvement. This is very important to recognize, as some people eliminate grains and report two weeks later that grain elimination didn't work for them."

Dr. Davis notes that even multiple sclerosis, which results from autoimmune destruction of the myelin covering of nerve tissue, can slowly improve or reverse. "It's also critical that you simultaneously correct vitamin D deficiency, as preliminary studies suggest a powerful relationship between vitamin D and this condition.

Prevention of Dementia
There's a lot we don't know about the causes of dementia, but one thing is clear. Chronically high blood sugar levels can fuel the development of dementia. One important way to stabilize your blood sugar is to give up blood sugar-spiking grains, Dr. Davis says. "Grain elimination is a powerful means of reversing high fasting and after-meal blood sugars," he explains. "Some people are also prone to the autoimmune process triggered by the gliadin and prolamin proteins that leads to dementia; it is likewise turned off with elimination of the inciting grains." (Scientists also recently made a huge breakthrough linking low vitamin D levels to Alzheimer's and dementia.)

Wheat Belly Total Health Top Tips for Going Grain-Free
1. Start Phase 1 food eliminations. Get ready for a life-changing event on par with birth and marriage! The plan is simple: Eliminate grains, eat real, single-ingredient foods, and manage your carbohydrates. For starters, try eliminating some of the things on this list:

All wheat-based products:

  • Breads
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Noodles
  • Pasta
  • Bagels
  • Muffins
  • Pancakes
  • Waffles
  • Doughnuts
  • Pretzels
  • Cookies
  • Crackers
  • Wheat-brewed beers (Check out the best grain-free alcohol options.)
  • Wheat-brewed liquors
  • Bulgur and triticale (both offspring of wheat)

All rye products:

  • Rye bread
  • Pumpernickel bread
  • Crackers
  • Rye whiskey
  • Rye vodka

All barley products:

  • Barley
  • Barley breads
  • Soups with barley
  • Beers made with barley malt

All corn products:

  • Corn
  • Cornstarch
  • Cornmeal products (chips, tacos, tortillas)
  • Grits
  • Polenta
  • Sauces or gravies thickened with cornstarch
  • Corn syrup
  • High-fructose corn syrup

(For a complete list of foods to minimize and start phasing out to regain your health, follow the entire Wheat Belly 10-Day Grain Detox plan.)

2. Choose a non-stressful period to experience withdrawal. Leg cramps, crankiness, mood swings—these are all common symptoms of grain withdrawal. "If you have the luxury of managing your time, choose a period when you don't anticipate high stress," Dr. Davis recommends. "Don't choose, for instance, the week an annoying mother-in-law is planning to visit, the start of a new and challenging project at work, or the week before your dissertation is due. Ideally, choose a long weekend or vacation."

He also recommends pampering yourself during this phase of the Wheat Belly Total Health plan. "Watch movies, laugh, enjoy a glass of wine, lie in the sun, get a massage. Like a bad hangover, this will pass," he says.

3. Hydrate. The precipitous drop in insulin caused by removing grains also reverses the sodium retention of wheat and grain consumption, causing fluid loss (diuresis) and a reduction in inflammation, Dr. Davis notes. "If you don't compensate by hydrating more than usual over the first few days, you may experience light-headedness, nausea, and leg cramps," he says.  (If you're hydrated, your urine should be nearly clear, not a dark, concentrated yellow.) A great habit to start the day right is to drink 16 ounces (2 cups) of water immediately upon awakening, since we awake dehydrated after lying supine and mouth-breathing for eight or so hours.

4. Use some salt. Specifically, sprinkle sea salt or another mineral-containing salt on your food to compensate for the loss of urinary salt that develops due to the drop in insulin levels, Dr. Davis says. "Salt, along with water, addresses the light-headedness and leg cramps that commonly occur during withdrawal," he explains.

5. Supplement. Magnesium deficiency is common, especially in people who have consumed grains for a long period of time, and it can magnify some of the symptoms of withdrawal from grains, particularly leg cramps and sleep disruptions. "Among the best absorbed is magnesium malate at a dose of 1,200 milligrams (mg) two or three times per day. (This is the weight of the magnesium plus the malate, not just "elemental" magnesium; this provides 180 mg of elemental magnesium per 1,200-mg tablet or capsule.) "I advise patients to also supplement iodine with inexpensive drops, capsules, or kelp tablets (dried seaweed) at a dosage of 500 micrograms (mcg) per day, which is more than the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of 150 mcg per day and, I believe, closer to the ideal intake," he says.

6. Consume fats, oils, and proteins liberally. "Do what your grandmother did and eat the skin and dark meat on your chicken, and ask for the liver," Dr. Davis says. (Just make sure it comes from grass-fed animals!)

Save the bones and boil them for soup or stock, and don't skim off the fat or gelatin when it cools, he adds. Dr. Davis also advocates for adding olive and coconut oil to your meals, and making smoothies and salads with good-fat foods like avocados. "Remember: Fat consumption does not make you fat, nor does it cause heart disease," he says. "Bury that bit of nonsense with the 'healthy whole grain' fiction."

7. Take a probiotic. Dr. Davis says to try getting 30 to 50 billion CFUs (colony-forming units, the measure used to quantify bacterial numbers) or more per day, and look for a supplement containing mixed species of lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. (Among the best probiotic brands are VSL#3Garden of Life, and ReNew Life.) Yogurt and fermented foods can be helpful, but aren't powerful enough for repairing the damage done by grains, he says. "While fermented sources of healthy bacteria (such as yogurt, kimchi, or kombucha) can be modestly helpful long-term, they are insufficient in the special situation of grain withdrawal, during which rapid repopulation with a broad range of species is desired."

More: Control Your Cravings With a Healthier Gut

He says taking a high-potency probiotic accelerates colonization by healthy bowel flora once the disruptive effects of bowel-toxic grains are absent. "This addresses the bloating and constipation that typically accompany grain withdrawal, with relief usually occurring within 24 hours of initiation of the probiotic," he explains, noting that you shouldn't need to take probiotics for more than eight weeks, since the idea is to repopulate your gut with healthy bacterial species after the grains have been removed. (If symptoms such as heartburn or bloating return when probiotics are stopped, this suggests that something else is wrong, such as an issue with the pancreas or with insufficient stomach acid, which may require a formal assessment, or at least a more prolonged course of probiotic supplementation.) 

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