If you have a sweet tooth and eat added sugar regularly, reducing your sugar intake can feel like a daunting task. While sugar can be a source of pleasure and comfort in our lives, it can also be addictive, leading to cravings and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when we try to reduce or eliminate it from our diets. Not to mention, sugar isn’t just found in our favorite sweets; sugar is a ubiquitous ingredient in nearly all processed foods and drinks, making it hard to avoid.
Before cutting out all sources of added sugar entirely and going cold turkey, consider taking a more gradual approach and preparing yourself for the possible obstacles in your path. The more prepared you are for setbacks, the easier it will be to work through them and see success in your sugar detox.
10 Common Sugar Withdrawal Side Effects and How to Deal with Them
Here are some of the most common symptoms of sugar withdrawal and what you can do to help manage them:
1. Sugar Cravings
Not surprisingly, one of the most common symptoms of sugar withdrawal is increased sugar cravings. When you eat sugar regularly, your body gets used to the amount of sugar you consume and your brain starts to crave the consistent hit of dopamine. As a result, you may experience intense sugar cravings and feel like you need something sweet to eat.
To manage sweet cravings, try eating a piece of fruit, drinking water, or chewing sugar-free gum instead of eating something sweet.
Because of the impact sugar has on blood sugar levels, cutting down your intake of sugary foods will likely cause you to crash and have lower blood sugar. This can lead to headaches during the first few days.
Drinking plenty of water and getting enough rest can help alleviate this symptom.
3. Cranky Mood
Some people may feel down, cranky, and irritable when they decrease their added sugar intake. This is due to the decrease in dopamine release your brain has gotten accustomed to.
To help manage this symptom, you can also try to release feel good hormones through other activities like exercise or watching a funny movie.
Eliminating sugar can lead to fatigue and low energy levels. This is because sugar is a quick source of energy for your body and when you stop consuming it, your body will need to find other sources of fuel.
Eating a healthy balanced diet that includes plenty of whole grains, fiber, protein, and healthy fats to help manage energy levels can help.
5. Feeling Lightheaded or Dizzy
When you become dependent on sugar to maintain blood sugar levels, stopping sugar intake can cause a sudden drop resulting in symptoms including dizziness, lightheadedness, and even fainting. In addition, when sugar intake is reduced, the body may also undergo changes in electrolyte balance, which can lead to dizziness and lightheadedness (9).
To manage this symptom, drink plenty of water and snack on healthy fats and protein to manage blood sugar levels. Great snack ideas include nuts, low fat cheese, or jerky. You can also add in an electrolyte drink.
Because of the impacts sugar can have on the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, it may also be linked to feelings of anxiousness. Sugar messes with serotonin, a hormone that plays a role in regulating mood and anxiety. When an individual reduces or stops sugar intake, it can lead to a decrease in serotonin levels and a drop in dopamine levels, which can result in anxiety, irritability, and mood swings (10).
It's important to note that not everyone will experience anxiety as a sugar withdrawal symptom and individual experiences can vary. If you are experiencing anxiety or other mental health symptoms, it's recommended to speak with a healthcare provider to determine the underlying cause and appropriate treatment.
7. Sleep Disruption
The spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels from sugar, can lead to disruptions in your body's circadian rhythm and negatively affect sleep. Additionally, the impacts of sugar on the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain that regulate sleep, such as serotonin and melatonin, can impact your sleep cycles (11).
Focusing on habits that support quality sleep can help. Like following a strict bedtime routine, removing distractions while you are trying to sleep, and incorporating relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga to reduce stress and promote relaxation before bedtime.
Nausea is a common side effect to a sudden drop in blood sugar levels and some people experience it as a result of quitting sugar. This symptom is typically very short lived.
To reduce or prevent nausea when stopping sugar intake, aim to gradually reduce your sugar consumption over time instead of abruptly stopping. Staying hydrated and eating a balanced diet with plenty of fiber and healthy fats can also help.
9. Brain Fog
The large swings in blood sugar levels caused by drastic changes in sugar intake can impact your mental clarity and brain power. The brain relies on a steady supply of glucose to function correctly, and when sugar intake is abruptly reduced, it can cause a drop in blood sugar levels, leading to symptoms of brain fog.
To help manage this symptom, consider reducing your sugar intake over time instead of going cold turkey. Emphasizing a healthy diet high in healthy fats from foods like salmon, nuts, and avocados can also support healthy brain function.
10. Poor Workouts
Because sugar is an immediate source of energy, you might find that cutting it out will cause your workouts to suffer initially. Your body has become used to having a consistent source of quick energy and now needs to find another fuel source. This will cause your strength and endurance to decrease temporarily.
To help manage this, including natural sources of sugar like fruits, juice, and healthy carbs around your workouts to provide a source of energy. Over time your body will get better at metabolizing more fat for fuel and you may even see improvements in your endurance.
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What Causes Sugar Withdrawal?
Sugar withdrawal occurs when one abruptly stops eating sugar or significantly reduces their sugar intake. Due to the effects of sugar on our brain chemistry and blood sugar levels, this sudden decrease in intake can lead to sugar withdrawal.
When you eat sugar, your brain releases the pleasure hormone dopamine (1). Similar to other addictive substances, over time your brain becomes accustomed to this rush of dopamine and starts to crave sugar to get the same “high” (2,3,4).
To make matters worse, eating a lot of sugar can cause your serotonin to crash, making your lows feel lower and the need for a dopamine rush even stronger (5,6). This is partially why sugar is so addictive and why it can do a real number on our brain chemistry when we try to kick the habit.
Additionally, because sugar is quickly digested and can enter the bloodstream almost immediately, high-sugar diets are often linked to blood sugar spikes and crashes (7,8). Over time, you may find yourself increasing your sugar intake further to prevent the crash and maintain your energy levels.
How Long Do Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms Last?
While sugar withdrawal can be uncomfortable, the symptoms are rarely long-term or serious. For most, they will find their withdrawal symptoms typically peak within the first few days after reducing or stopping sugar intake and gradually subside over a couple of weeks.
Although, the exact duration of sugar withdrawal symptoms can vary depending on several factors, including the individual's sugar intake, the duration of sugar consumption, and the extent of addiction to sugar.
Some people may experience a more prolonged withdrawal period due to a severe addiction to sugar or an underlying medical condition. Additionally, if an individual continues to consume sugar during the withdrawal process, it can prolong the symptoms and delay the body's adaptation to a low-sugar diet.
It's important to note that everyone's experience with sugar withdrawal is different, and there is no set timeline for how long symptoms will last. However, it is typically temporary and manageable with proper nutrition, hydration, sleep, and stress management techniques. Gradually reducing added sugar intake over time, rather than abruptly stopping, can also help minimize the severity and duration of withdrawal symptoms.