Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms & What to Expect
Sugar withdrawal can be a beast. The side effects, both physical and mental, can make giving up sugar, or even simply cutting it down, a real challenge.
This is a problem. Excess sugar consumption in the West is amongst the leading causes of many chronic diseases, including obesity, type II diabetes, and heart disease. It also leads to crashes and spikes in energy and mood. We would all do well to limit our sugar intake – we will be healthier, happier, and slimmer for doing so.
But what happens to your body as you cut it out or down? What does sugar withdrawal feel like, and what kind of timeline are we working to, here?
Sugar addiction and reliance: a brief history
There are solid reasons for your sugar cravings. It is part and parcel of being a human being, evolved from the stock we all come from. We have evolved to seek out high-calorie, fast absorbing energy from sugar sources such as fruit. Our bodies have evolved to turn this sugar into body fat, especially around our vital organs, keeping us safe, energised and warm during leaner periods.
There are profoundly strong neurological mechanisms underpinning this desire for sugar. They all but guarantee that we will always choose sugar where and when we have the option. Unfortunately, we have this option pretty much constantly in the twenty first century. Our bodies and brains simply haven’t caught up with this overabundance.
Our brains evolved to reward this instinct for sugar by releasing neurotransmitters that make us feel good. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers within the brain. There are billions of them, with lots and lots of different tasks. In this case, they give us a high, an energy rush, a feeling of euphoria.
Certain drugs like heroin and cocaine are highly addictive because of this same mechanism. Some addictive drugs will mimic these feel-good neurotransmitters. Others will cause the brain to release them in the same way that sugar does. We see dependence on these drugs during addiction, alongside withdrawal when they are removed.
Sugar is similar. This can all result in sugar withdrawal when we cut it out or down.
What do we mean by ‘sugar’ withdrawal?
Let’s straighten out a bit of terminology before we get too far into this. I’m not arguing that you should go sugar-free, unless you are attempting a ketogenic diet. Regular, mixed, balanced diets will contain it as many of the healthy foods we typically consume contain it in some form or another. This includes dairy produce, fruit, some vegetables, and bread.
Don’t cut these out unless you really have to – unless your doctor tells you that you need to for health reasons.
Rather, when we talk about cutting sugar down or out, and the sugar withdrawal that comes with it, we are talking about refined, added sugars.
Think of anything sweet that isn’t natural – chocolate and sweets, soda, alcohol, as well as sweetened tea and anything that you add sugar to yourself. Think, too, of ready meals and processed foods, such as many types of bread, microwave meals, pre-made sauces and so on. These generally contain a lot of sugar and salt to make them more appealing. Even packaged meats will often have added sugars.
Withdrawal implies addiction. We have seen that sugar can indeed be addictive. However, you needn’t be addicted to sugar to, firstly, benefit from cutting it out or down, or, secondly, experience withdrawal. Addiction is simply the thick end of the wedge. What follows below is applicable to most of us, even those at that wedge’s thinner end.
Sugar reliance and withdrawal
There are some very good reasons why we like sugar so much.
Obviously, it tastes nice to most of us. It is a very simple source of energy, meaning that our bodies naturally want it – as above, our bodies have evolved to seek out the simplest, easiest calorie sources going. However, as we have seen, there is more to it than simple taste.
Sugar has quite a profound physiological, and neurological effect on our bodies. It causes the brain to release endorphins. These work similarly to opioids – they make us happier and work as mild pain relief whilst also being addictive. It also causes the brain to release dopamine, our ‘happy chemicals’, that lift our mood. Dopamine in particular is crucial to habit formation.
Simply put, then, sugar makes us happy and has addictive, habit-forming consequences.
Removing the sugar from your diet removes this endorphin and dopamine rush. This is what kicks us into withdrawal, in a similar way to the withdrawal felt by those quitting opioids (however, it is generally, though not always, much less severe).
You will likely experience cravings, depression, irritability, and low energy. If you’re going the whole hog and bringing your total carbohydrate content below 50 grams daily, putting yourself into ketosis, you will experience keto flu, the extreme version of all of this. Keto flu includes foggy and light headedness, nausea, intense hunger pangs, energy crashes, headaches, and bad breath.
Studies have shown that cutting out sugar can cause withdrawal symptoms that mirror those caused by going cold turkey on other drugs, like cannabis, cocaine, and heroin
A timeline for sugar withdrawal
The first day
You may begin to experience certain withdrawal symptoms within hours of giving up sugar. These can include intense cravings for sugar and sweet foods, or for other carbohydrate-heavy foods like pasta or bread, as well as irritability, depression, fatigue, brain fog, and energy crashes.
However, the severity of these withdrawal symptoms will depend on the severity of your reliance on sugar. You may also find that these symptoms are easy enough to ignore in these first few hours.
The first week
The above symptoms – irritability, depression, fatigue, brain fog, and energy crashes – will likely get worse over the following few days. This first week will be the hardest part. Cravings in particular can get quite bad in this period. You may be very tempted to binge. Indeed, this is the period in which most people will relapse, binge, and have to begin again.
These binges can be particularly ruinous to your mental health and sugar withdrawal both immediately and going forwards. You can trap yourself in a vicious cycle with them if you’re not careful.
A binge will do a couple of things. Firstly, it will give you a massive rush, reminding you why you love sugar so much. This will set you back in itself.
However, we often feel guilty, angry, and depressed after a binge, particularly if it means we are falling off the wagon. And what seems like a good short time cure for anger and depression? More sugar and the endorphins and dopamine it releases, of course.
Two weeks to a month
Things should ease from a couple of weeks or so after you last ate refined sugar.
Symptoms lessen as your reliance on the endorphins and dopamine elicited by sugar consumption drops. You should be pretty much done with your sugar withdrawal in this period. At around the first month, symptoms should entirely disappear. However, the temptation to relapse may always be present.
Ketogenic diets are severe. You eat minimal or even trace, amounts of carbohydrates. Instead of the glucose, you would typically get from carbs, your body runs on ketones, taken from fat.
Most people will enter ketosis after a few days of eating fewer than fifty grams of carbs per day. For a sense of proportion, this is about the same as a couple of bananas. Many people go stricter still.
It will take your body a few days or even a couple of weeks to adjust to this kind of diet and overcome the sugar withdrawal associated with it. During this time, you will probably suffer what is popularly called ‘keto flu’.
Keto flu symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, headache, fatigue, muscular weakness and cramping, bad breath, digestive complaints, and depression can be far more severe than simple sugar withdrawal.
However, as with sugar withdrawal, keto flu has a short window. You should be over the worst of the symptoms after a couple of weeks. By the end of the first month, your body should be fully adjusted to ketosis, free from any of these side effects. You will then reap the full benefits of quitting sugar