Sleep Apnea, Wheat Allergy, Nasty Cough and Personal Science

Cliff Styles, a 66-year-old man living in Huntington Beach, commented that his sleep got much better after he stopped eating wheat. I asked him why he gave up wheat. He replied:

I had a morning cough that was very nasty, I didn’t smoke, but had read a fair amount about food allergies and that reading suggested an allergic reaction as the cause.  I tried several things, over a period of years, including eliminating alcohol for several months of the year (modest help to allergies and depression), reducing sugar consumption (big help to mood swings), with some success. I had been reluctant to eliminate wheat because it seemed benign and I loved all the wheat products, but at one point in reading about food allergies I came across the idea that we develop allergic addictions to foods we eat regularly — and I was probably eating wheat more than three times a day, seven days a week. I made no connection to the sleep apnea and snoring in the allergy research, in fact I took the sleep apnea and snoring for granted, and thought the nightmares were the product of psychological problems.

I decided to experiment with eliminating wheat.  Well, it was like I imagine going off of heroin might be like — chills, body aches, flu-like symptoms for four or five days, then all the symptoms cleared up — and the cough went away.  My wife was skeptical, so after a few weeks, I went back to eating wheat, the cough promptly came back, she was convinced, I was more certain, went off wheat permanently. I will once in a while indulge, but the quick return of the cough gets me back to the wheat-free diet. The wheat reaction is so pronounced that many friends have noticed my reaction, since I tend to indulge at social occasions.

The sleep benefit happened quite unexpectedly. After quitting wheat, my snoring eased a bit, and the sleep apnea went away, though now I do not remember how quickly, but I think it was pretty fast. Another side benefit is that I lost about 15 pounds of belly fat, and it stayed off for years. My wife notices that when I indulge in wheat now, my snoring gets worse that night, whereas I won’t necessarily notice this myself.

So what was the impetus and chain of causation?  A symptom (a nasty cough, you’d think I was a pack a day smoker, especially in the morning), reading about food allergies, self-testing and seeing a result on the cough, and only then getting the benefit to sleep.  At no time did I undertake the test of eliminating wheat in order to cure a sleep problem, that was just a very, very fortunate side effect.

How much sleep apnea is due to food allergy? Sleep doctors do not consider this possibility. Here is an example where the food allergy was dairy. Here is another example. Here someone claims “The commonest causes of obstruction sleep apnoea are allergy . . . and being overweight.”

21 Replies to “Sleep Apnea, Wheat Allergy, Nasty Cough and Personal Science”

  1. My experience with wheat was similar, 4-5 days of flu like symptoms, and then my allergies were gone. Before giving it up I always felt like I had a sinus infection. I did not quantify my sleep but I definitely had a lot easier time studying.

  2. Do people who give up wheat tend to replace it with other grains: rice, oats, barley, rye …? Are those grains more benign to the wheat-intolerant?

    Is it ever enough to reduce wheat intake, or must one expect to need to eliminate it?

  3. I also wonder if doctors get the cause and effect order wrong. They always say obesity causes apnea. But many slim people also suffer from apnea. It’s possible that having apnea destroys your sleep and thereby encourages muscle loss/weight gain. Or perhaps there’s a feedback loop involved. Thanks for your comments Cliff

  4. All of my allergy symptoms – sinus congestion, cough, watery / itchy eyes, frequent sneezing – all cleared up when I gave up wheat and milk (I still consume butter and heavy cream without any problems – I’m not lactose intolerant, but lactose free whey protein will cause digestive distress – it must be the proteins, not the fat or sugar, in milk that I’m intolerant of).

    I gave up all grains for a couple of years, now I eat white rice and corn occasionally (tortillas) without any of the allergy symptoms coming back. I eat real ice cream (no additives) occasionally, but I can feel it in my sinuses. If I eat it a couple of days in a row, or drink a couple of glasses of milk, I wake up with sinus congestion.

    Here’s an article in the Daily Beast, which talks about wheat, and wheat germ agglutinin in particular:
    Nasty stuff…

  5. My former manager at work was a textbook wheat allergy case just like this guy, wheat belly, snoring, cough, chronic health niggles, whole nine yards.

    For _years_ that I knew him he had this strange cough that I’d assumed was some sort of tick, like some people crack their fingers. It had gotten so that I’d stoped noticing it even. I would drop hints about low carb and so forth after I’d discovered it, but (hopefully) I was never overbearing or anything. He’s a pretty conventional wisdom type of guy so I wanted to let him know the “new thinking” on Atkins, as I called it.

    Then, one day he was talking and mentioned that his cough was from acid reflux and he had been on various meds and so forth, but they weren’t working so he was going to have to have surgery to fix his esophagus which was being eroded by stomach acid and the irritation from the stomach acid was the source of his cough.

    When was explaining that a contractor happened to be standing next to me and we were good friends and he had learned the whole low carb & wheat deal from me. The contractor unloaded on the guy. Saying straight-up, and not much nicer than this, that he knows his problems are from diet, and he is absolutely crazy to be choosing surgery instead giving up donuts and beer. He’s like a diabetic letting his legs get amputated, or a smoker losing one lung. Besides, it’s not like the surgery is going to fix the problem, it’s just fixing the most obvious symptom. As an engineer, the manager should understand that. In a sheepish and quite voice the manager said, “yeah, I know but I like that stuff.”

    Well apparently staring down the knife caused him to re-think it all and he gave up wheat completely, cough went away, sleep was better, and he dropped about 20 lbs in 2 months. Again, textbook. I find all of it amazing.

  6. dearieme: my experience is that all the grains except rice cause the reaction,and the amount can be very small. Sometimes I escape, but I cannot say why. It might be gut bugs that make a difference.

    portlander: overcoming resistance to a needed test or change often demands hearing it from more than one person, and a crisis. You and your friend were both important. It’s just human nature, I think. Perhaps if we all learned to think better, it would not be so true, or if we mastered some of Seth’s regular self-testing? Of course, this kind of resistance varies a lot across individuals.

    I think one of Seth’s big points is that experts end up exploiting those weaknesses, and personal science is a way of counteracting that.

  7. Thanks, Cliff. At the moment I’ve given up milk, but not yoghurt, cream or cheese. My sinuses are clearer.

    I’d hate to give up wheat: is there any test that would tell me whether I should be considering it? It would turn our domestic economy upside down!

  8. It’s suddenly fashionable to recommend The Mediterranean Diet. In Italy, at least, that involves plenty of pasta and bread. Is the medical trades’ Med Diet an actual Med Diet or a parody of one?

  9. Seth: the Grain Brain book by neurologist Perlmutter mentions something that might provide a metabolic explanation for your butter and cognition results: ‘Most important, cholesterol is looked upon as an essential fuel for the neurons. Neurons themselves are unable to generate significant cholesterol; instead they rely on delivery of cholesterol from the bloodstream via a specific carrier protein. Interestingly, this carrier protein, LDL, has been given the derogatory title “bad cholesterol.” In reality, LDL is not a cholesterol molecule at all, good or bad. It’s a low-density lipoprotein (hence its acronym), and there is absolutely nothing bad about it. The fundamental role of LDL in the brain, again, is to capture life-giving cholesterol and transport it to the neuron, where it performs critically important functions.’ Do you have any knowledge of this? I have never heard of this.

  10. How is it possible to develop allergies from eating the same foods frequently? Until recently nearly all societies around the world ate the same foods with near complete regularity. There were SOME seasonal changes in fruit and vegetables but for instance bread was eaten year around for one’s entire life in Europe and rice was eaten year around in Asia and so was cheese and meat and a host of other foods. Are we expected to believe that people developed allergies to these foods? In some tropical climates there wasn’t even seasonal variations and people at an unvarying diet of sweet potatoes, coconut, fish, and some roots and tubers yet were reported as quite healthy.

    So what doesn’t add up here? Is that just another myth?

  11. George, the wheat in our diet has changed significantly during our lifetimes. More profitable wheat strains continually push out older versions (with no health testing that I am aware of.)

    IMHO, this amounts to a massive invisible health experiment.

  12. I haven’t read Perimutter, but FWIW, I’m skeptical of in vitro tests for food allergies. To many positive results, and I don’t think they match what really happens the body. No one I know is an IV bread user.

    Instead, I think if one very thoughtfully pays attention to their mind and body, the food allergies will make themselves known easily enough.

    Does one have some sort of chronic problem that’s been attribute to age or bad luck? Is one’s body shape weirdly out of proportion? Are there mornings you just can’t get out of bed, or conversely, nights were you just can’t sleep? If so, it’s likely a food allergy. And if not, don’t sweat it. Keep doing whatever you’ve been doing. 🙂

    But if you’re suspicious, it should be easy enough to _completely_ remove the food from your diet for 7-10 days. Then add it back in with a normal meal of it and see how your system handles it. Classic n=1 testing at its simplest and best. Cheers.

  13. George: I don’t know if ‘allergic addiction’ is a valid hypothesis or not, but the idea was an essential part of getting myself to test wheat elimination. I, too, was skeptical, and believe me, I did not want to find that wheat was a problem. The change in my life has been dramatic.

    Armchair science will never be enough for me, ever again. Seth’s personal science gets us out of that armchair and into the laboratory we all live in, if we’d just take note.

  14. Oh, I certainly think it’s possible people are allergic to foods, I just don’t understand how it can be the result of eating the same thing over and over again. That’s what most people have always done, historically, and continue to do. Things like bread and rice were staples, people had them every day, day in day out, throughout the year. It beggars belief that this could cause allergies. One could be allergic to wheat or develop it at some point but I don’t see how regularly eating wheat could be the cause of that.

    I never suffered any particular symptoms and I eliminated wheat and dairy and sugar from my diet several times and never felt any different so I know that for me it makes almost no difference what I eat as long as I eat basically healthy (veggies, fruits, meat, fats, grains) but I don’t deny that other people have vastly different experiences. To each his own. These days I eat what tastes good and what I crave, even a little bit of junk food, while trying to keep it balanced and healthy. But that’s just me.

  15. I was in my late fifties when I developed an intolerance for Brazil nuts. I didn’t even appreciate the source of my stomach problem until I came across a remark in Jim Watson’s book “DNA” about a genetic inability to tolerate a particular protein in the nut. Why my genetics chose to lie doggo for fifty years I’ve no idea.

    P.S. The Wikipedia article on Brazil nuts contains no warning of this effect.
    P.P.S. The index of the Watson book doesn’t let you trace his remark. It reminds me of a warning I got as an undergraduate: an American textbook may well have superb diagrams but will always have a lousy index.

  16. There are *so* many weird allergies you can get.

    I have an inhalation allergy to polyester and acrylic dust which has caused no end of trouble, and which took 20 years to figure out. Eliminating those has been extraordinarily difficult and still isn’t done. I have a collection of other problems remaining, unfortunately, including one (dry skin) which got significantly worse after I eliminated the allergens.

  17. ” If so, it’s likely a food allergy. ”

    Don’t underestimate the possibility of allergy to cosmetics, shampoos, soaps, conditioners, fabrics,… bluntly anything which you come in contact with on a frequent basis could be the allergen.

  18. For reference, the pure “eliminate, challenge” scientific test procedure was how I figured out my fiber allergies. Took everything out of the house except cotton, cleaned the house, “detoxed” for a month — providing that it wasn’t cotton. Then brought one fiber back in at a time until one of them triggered symptoms.

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