Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms and Treatments
What is Sugar Withdrawal?
When your body is used to high amounts of sugar regularly, it can be a shock to the system to cut it entirely from your daily lifestyle. When this happens, some people experience a myriad of symptoms that are associated with sugar withdrawal. We take a closer look at sugar withdrawal symptoms in this section.
So what causes sugar withdrawal symptoms and why is cutting sugar from your diet such a challenge to overcome? One reason why sugar withdrawal occurs is due to hormones in the body. Your body releases certain hormones and compounds in the blood in response to certain daily situations. When you consume sugar, your body releases dopamine into the bloodstream. Dopamine is widely known as the “happy” hormone that is present when your mind is the most euphoric. This euphoria tends to exhibit a level of satisfaction, and when that threshold is met, the brain may feel as though it is satisfied. When you bite into a creamy chocolate bar or drink a sugary soda, your brain releases dopamine, which is why you feel so happy when you consume sugar.
Dopamine and Addiction
Sugar withdrawal may have serious consequences to your mental and physical health, similar to what is seen with addiction to drugs. Studies have demonstrated that withdrawing from certain controlled or illicit drugs such as alcohol, nicotine and morphine can often lead to increases in serum dopamine and acetylcholine, a similar effect to that found with sugar withdrawal. While illicit drug use may seem more challenging to overcome, the brain craves sugar in similar ways as it does illicit drugs, so it feels like an addiction to a certain degree.
Keeping in mind that high amounts of sugar result in similar hormonal responses to those of illicit drugs, it appears that your body adjusts to sugar consumption similarly to regular drug use. For example, it is possible that the brain may crave higher amounts of sugar in an attempt to reach a certain dopamine concentration in the blood, thus signaling euphoria. However, as the body reacts to continuous amounts of this nutrient, you may need to consume more, which could explain why adults crave such high amounts of sugar. This continuous cycle of sugar consumption, hormone release, and euphoria can play a major role in how the brain responds, and it could have some implications on behavioral patterns.
When you consume high amounts of sugar regularly, your body’s receptors tend to require more of it to meet the euphoric threshold. These receptors tend to increase in number with a higher degree of consumption. What is the best way to decrease receptors in the body? Typically, it requires a decrease in sugar consumption, but this can lead to strong cravings in the brain and thus create a cycle of sugar addiction.
Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms
As with many health conditions you can experience throughout your life, symptoms play a major role in the identification of the condition. Listed below are some common sugar withdrawal symptoms that you should be aware of. However, many of these symptoms can be associated with a wide range of other illnesses, so you should consult with your doctor for more information.
Fatigue and Weakness
One of the first and possibly most noticeable sugar withdrawal symptoms is fatigue, which is accompanied by full-body muscular weakness. Fatigue is caused by some physiological conditions, but often it is not something that is alarming. When the body is used to a certain nutrient, in this case, sugar—there is a level of satisfaction that comes with the consumption of that nutrient, and it can even lead to increased energy. However, when there is a decrease in the overall consumption of this nutrient, the body responds by feeling generalized weakness throughout the body. Part of the symptom of fatigue has to do with your brain and the dopamine concentration in your blood, but it could also be a side effect of your cells not getting the usual nourishment it used to get, which is what happens when you have low blood sugar levels.
It should come as no surprise that when you cut out sugar in your diet, you most likely will have some sugar cravings. This is a very common symptom of sugar withdrawal, and because the cravings can be intense, this is generally one of the symptoms that people tend to notice most often. Cravings range in severity, but usually, it can lead to the individual craving sweet foods throughout the day.
Popular sweetened foods include sugary sodas, doughnuts, and chocolate. Typically, the cravings will subside after a short amount of time throughout the week, but sometimes they persist for longer. Going into a new lifestyle that does not include sugar in the diet is a way to get ahead of the issue and help to prevent any further issues down the road in your healthy lifestyle. Keeping the sugar cravings at a minimum can help throughout your weight loss journey as well.
Since cutting out sugar may decrease the overall caloric intake in your diet, there is a good chance that you experience confusion. Confusion is a symptom in many conditions, but for sugar withdrawal, it may be tied to a sudden decrease in sugar in your body. The brain requires fast energy throughout the day, and its primary source of energy is glucose (which is table sugar). When the body is lacking adequate amounts of sugar, your brain could briefly become deprived and have you feeling not quite yourself. This is very similar to what some type 2 diabetics experience, and it can be a frustrating symptom to have, especially when you are changing your lifestyle for the better.
Headaches are a common condition that afflicts many adults throughout their lives. Headaches are subjective in that each person experiences pain differently than others do. However, in the case of sugar withdrawal, headaches may consistently be present in similar ways. While more information is needed as to why many people experience a sugar headache when cutting out sugar, initial theories lean toward issues with the nervous system. Especially when you binge on sugar, the body enters an addictive state, with dopamine released as a result.
When sugar is taken away from a system that is used to high levels, the nervous system tends to experience changes that can create smaller and lingering aches and pains, most notably in the head. Typically, a sugar withdrawal headache can linger for a day or two, but overall it should be expected that they diminish the longer your diet contains reduced sugar. Also, tremors and trembling can be a side effect of the nervous system responding to sugar withdrawal as well. If you frequently find yourself experiencing what you think is a no sugar headache, consult with your physician.
Another common sign seen in sugar withdrawal is mood changes, particularly right after making the switch off of sugar. Your body goes through sugar detox side effects when you quit sugar, which can cause your brain to be fixated on sugar. This can cause the brain to crave sugar and demand it, similar to a temper tantrum. Scientifically, these mood changes have to do with the decrease of dopamine in your blood and with the amount of GABA in your body. In the case of sugar withdrawal, chances are your body stops releasing high amounts of dopamine in response to a decrease in sugar consumption.
Muscle Aches and Pains
Similar to headaches listed above, there is a chance that your body experiences generalized muscle aches and pains in response to a significant decrease in sugar consumption. Sugar withdrawal can create aches and pains that mimic the pains of fibromyalgia and other conditions. For some people, this can be serious enough that it causes you to visit a physician for pain management. If you experience nagging and dull pains throughout your body, you should monitor the severity and duration to have a better idea of your condition. If your aches and pains last for longer than a week, it is wise to consult with your physician for more information on your condition. Otherwise, aches and pains associated with sugar withdrawal typically subside naturally.
Poor Sleep Quality
Sleeping is a natural process in which your body rejuvenates, recovers, and resets everything from the muscular tissue to your brain power. When you get adequate amounts of sleep with sufficient sleep quality, your health tends to be optimal and your energy levels high. However, when you lose sleep or have sleep disturbances, your health could be affected in some ways.
Sugar withdrawal can cause sleep disturbances, which take away the amount of REM sleep you get at night. When the body is adjusting to a decrease in sugar in the diet and with a decrease in certain hormones, it can cause the brain to work in unnatural ways, and your sleep quality could be affected. As with some of the other previously mentioned symptoms above, poor sleep quality related to sugar withdrawal may diminish by itself and with time, but if you notice that it persists for longer than a week or two, then you should consult with your physician for further guidance.
This symptom should be no surprise to those who have experienced sugar withdrawal. Depression is affected by a large number of conditions, mostly relating to life events and mental health, as well as coping abilities. However, sugar withdrawal can cause depression due to hormonal imbalance, mainly from a decrease in the amount of dopamine released in the blood. As described above, dopamine is a hormone that is responsible for creating euphoria and happiness, which is what adults get after consuming sugar. When your blood sugar is reduced, depression is likely to set in. Depression can affect adults differently depending on the severity of sugar withdrawal, but it is important to seek help from a qualified healthcare provider to ensure your health and safety.
There are not many situations in which adults view weight loss as a negative side effect, especially if you are looking to lose weight purposefully. However, one common side effect from the reduction of sugar from the diet is weight loss, usually within the first week of changing your diet and lifestyle. Weight loss is possible in the case of sugar withdrawal, and while the amount of weight loss depends on some factors, it should be expected that you lose some weight.
If you previously consumed large amounts of sugar throughout the day, you should think of your new lifestyle without sugar as calories that you are no longer pumping into your body. Every gram of sugar contains roughly four calories, and the average American consumes 82 grams of sugar a day, so if you cut your sugar consumption to 25 grams daily (what’s recommended by the American Heart Association), you could expect a net difference of about 228 calories daily. One pound equals about 3500 calories, so you could reasonably lose a pound within two weeks simply by cutting back on sugar and making no other changes.
There is a chance that you could be feeling a variety of sugar withdrawal symptoms that together feel like the flu. Typically the flu presents as a fever, chills, night sweats, diarrhea, and generalized fatigue. Also, dull aches and pains that set into the musculoskeletal tissue can closely mimic the pains that accompany the flu, so keep this in mind if you experience these symptoms. If you experience any flu-like symptoms when cutting back on sugar, it is important to consult with your doctor or qualified healthcare provider so that you can be certain that it is not the flu causing your sugar withdrawal symptoms.
The last symptom listed here is a side effect of dramatically decreasing sugar from your diet, and for some people, lightheadedness can be an issue. Typically, lightheadedness related to your diet means your blood sugar levels are low, which could signal you to eat or drink something. If you experience this early in your lifestyle change, do not be alarmed, but be sure to pay attention to your sugar withdrawal symptoms closely. If lightheadedness remains for a longer duration, you should consult with your physician.
Stages of Sugar Withdrawal
There are some stages that you may progress through when you are experiencing sugar withdrawal. While the order listed below is standard for many adults, there is a chance that your personal experience could be different, so keep that in mind.
Stage 1: Motivation
Any time you look to make a lifestyle change, there is a chance that you start with a strong feeling of motivation. The best way to describe this is how New Year’s resolutions are created every year by adults looking to lose weight. At the turn of the clock and start of the New Year, adults hit the gym harder than ever and change their diet, all in an attempt to lose some excess weight. This first part is when motivation is highest, and it can truly drive your ability to accomplish your goals. Similar to a New Year’s resolution, hitting stage 1 hard means you are likely to be very motivated for a new you. The trick to winning the battle with cutting sugar from your diet is to stay motivated in some way throughout your process. A reward system is a great place to start, but when you start to experience sugar withdrawal symptoms, your motivation will need to be strong to overcome them.
Stage 2: Intense Cravings
Cravings can be an issue, and typically they closely follow after the time of strong motivation. Sugar and its many variations (fructose, sucrose, glucose, lactose, and others) tend to be quite addictive and are typically consumed in high amounts in one sitting. As you cut out sugar from your diet, it should be expected that you’ll have cravings from time to time, and yes, the intensity of the cravings can vary for each person. When you hit the intense cravings stage, it is best to try and find healthy substitutes that bring you joy or activities to help distract your mind. Otherwise, you could spend a great deal of time fixating on your cravings, and it could eventually turn into you giving in to temptation.
Stage 3: Headaches
As you read above, headaches can be a common symptom among individuals experiencing sugar withdrawal. Typically, headaches appear after the cravings stage, and this is usually something that progresses with time. Cravings can appear soon after cutting sugar from the diet, but it typically takes some time for headaches to start appearing. For some people, this may be a day or two, but for others, it could be longer. At this point in your lifestyle change, your body is experiencing the full sugar detox side effects. For this reason, your body could start to have nervous system issues that can cause mild, dull, and aching headaches. If you reach this stage in your lifestyle change, it is important to have ways to naturally fight headaches that come about. More on this will be listed later in the article.
Stage 4: Aches, Pains and other Symptoms
When this stage occurs, you can typically expect a wide range of sugar withdrawal symptoms to take full effect. Within this time, you may notice dull aches, pains, chills, tremors, and mood changes. At the peak of all the symptoms, it could be a time when depression sets in and even a time when the sugar-free lifestyle comes to an abrupt end, but this is truly where you should stick with it. This stage can test your willpower, and as long as you continue to remain motivated, you have the best chance at succeeding.
Stage 5: Symptoms Resolve
The previous two stages typically are the worst of all, but once you make it past those stages, the rest all comes together. One of the biggest reasons that adults make a lifestyle change and decide to cut sugar from the diet is to feel better and to lose weight, and once the stage 3 and 4 sugar withdrawal symptoms resolve, the rest seems fairly easy. When the symptoms resolve, you may feel energized, free, or even as if you have been given an entirely new outlook on life, health, and your appearance. Stage 1 is a powerful stage in which your motivation levels are heightened to your new energy levels, but it is in stage 5 where you feel your best. Once you reach stage 5, consider taking photos to create the before and after, consider sharing your experiences with friends, family, and colleagues, and even consider rewarding yourself with a new workout outfit, shoes, or a fancy water bottle. After all, you made it this far, so consider making it fun along the way.
How to Overcome Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms
Now that you have some information on sugar withdrawal, the common symptoms, and the stages of the withdrawal process, you can look for meaningful and effective ways to overcome the symptoms.
Listed below are some practical ways to combat and overcome some of the symptoms of sugar withdrawal. Keep in mind that not all of the listed suggestions are for everyone, but it is essential to take a close look at each tip to see which may work for you. If you are curious about the effects of them all, then consider giving every tip a try.
Understand What Contains Sugar
To cut sugar from your diet and prevent the withdrawal symptoms, you must have a good idea as to what contains sugar. Many foods surprisingly have high amounts of sugar, regardless if it is added or not, and tracking what you eat may be a good start. Tracking your food sources and servings can help you to count the amount of sugar you consume before jumping off sugar; when you are living the sugar-free lifestyle, making good decisions will be much easier after having tracked your food. You can take a look at our guide on how much sugar is in common foods for more information on foods that contain sugar, as well as methods for making adequate substitutions.
Set Realistic Goals
Remember that part about motivation from stage 1? Part of that is coming back into play here. Setting goals is a huge motivational factor when it comes to making a lifestyle change and especially with dietary changes. Let’s face it: you have most likely been eating sugar since you were a little child so it will take some time to achieve the results you want. Consider starting by setting realistic, smaller goals that you can achieve. Once you start reaching the smaller goals, you can work towards larger and more complete goals.
One of the best things you can do during your change is to post your goals list somewhere in the kitchen area. Whenever you are craving ice cream or a cookie, you can tell yourself no and revisit your goals sheet as a way to remind yourself that you are going to make this change and succeed. It is all about keeping your motivation strong, and your goals sheet can be a useful motivating device.
Some adults lean towards sugar detoxing as a method to reduce cravings and habits, as well as live a healthier lifestyle. Some methods vary depending on the protocol used, but typically a sugar detox involves healthy alternatives, recipes, and mental training to achieve success. Consider taking a look at our sugar detox guide for more about specifics on the method and to learn how to avoid sugar detox side effects.
Find Healthy Alternatives
If you are going to cut sugar completely from your life, you will need to cut out some of your old dietary habits and choose healthy alternatives. For starters, avoiding sugar is something you will want to do, but be mindful that sugar substitutes may not be the best solution. Sugar substitutes tend to trick the mind into thinking you are consuming high amounts of sugar when indeed you are not. This can create a confusing state for your brain and can cause a stronger addiction to sweet foods and beverages. Try eating foods in their pure state, such as unsweetened tea, coffee, vegetables without sweetened dips, as well as whole fruit (not fruit juice). If you are having strong cravings for chocolate, then consider your options and make an informed decision. Lastly, it is always important to have an idea as to what you are putting into your body, so be sure to read all food labels before consuming anything and if there is no label, do your best with alternatives.
Consume More Protein
For anyone looking to cut refined sugar out of the diet for weight loss, this tip is helpful in two ways. For starters, the more protein you consume every meal, the better your chances that you will feel satiated. Pure protein options include salmon, tuna steak, chicken, poultry, tofu, beans, and legumes. Simply swapping a small number of carbohydrates for protein can significantly help in the weight loss journey.
In addition to weight loss, consuming more protein in each meal can help to fight off your sugar cravings and ultimately help with your sugar withdrawal symptoms. By consuming the similar protein-laden options listed above, your body can better handle sugar peaks and drops following a meal, which means you could potentially have fewer cravings. Part of this regulation of your sugar comes with another hormone called ghrelin, which is widely known as the hunger hormone because it signals to the brain that it is time to eat. The more protein you have in your diet means the less ghrelin you have floating in your blood, which results in fewer cravings for food and a better blood sugar profile.
Bottom Line on Sugar Withdrawal
When asking if sugar is bad for your health, it is easy to state that glucose is required by the brain for proper functioning. While there is some truth to the necessity of sugar, most adult dietary habits include far more than the bare minimum or even moderate of refined sugar. Many popular foods have sugar added, beverages are laden with sugar, and sugar substitutes are stronger than the real thing; all of these factors can be considered a summation of poor lifestyle habits throughout the years.
Cutting refined sugar from the diet seems a tad drastic when first starting, but the good thing is, most people feel amazing once they kick sugar. Similarly, it may seem silly to think that someone can have an addiction to refined sugar. The truth is that the body’s reaction to sugar has been closely associated with the addiction to powerful drugs such as cocaine, so it is a real thing. On cutting the sugar from your diet, it is possible that you can experience any number of the sugar withdrawal symptoms listed above because your brain and body are trying to purge something you have become so used to.
When your sugar withdrawal symptoms set in (if they do), it is important to have a game plan for them at any time. Do you expect to feel lethargic due to kicking the sugar? What is your response to this? The best plan moving forward is to have a plan if any of the listed sugar withdrawal symptoms pop up. The afternoon sugar headaches that appear day after day will eventually resolve, but in the meantime, what do you plan to do about the aches?
Any time that you are trying to change your diet up a bit, it is wise to drink more water. Water is a vital substance that your body needs to survive (much like sugar) and without it, your body will shut down in a hurry. Water also helps to curb some of the sugar cravings that you could experience while making this lifestyle change. Also, water helps to regulate your blood sugar levels, fill your stomach, and hydrate the body. Plus, it can be a refreshing alternative to sugary sodas and juices. While there is no ideal amount of water that you should drink, the general rule of thumb for the standard adult is to drink about eight cups of water throughout the day.