What is Sugar Withdrawal?- Physical and Emotional Responses to Quitting Sugar

Sugar withdrawal evokes similar biological responses as withdrawal from any other substance. There are also emotional responses to cutting sugar if you are addicted. However, there is no need to feel hopeless or despair- there are plenty of healthy coping mechanisms and support systems you can use to get through sugar withdrawal.

Sugar can be a Drug

The brain is the result of genetics and environment- so two different people will respond differently to refined sugar. In my case, refined sugar ran my life without me realizing it for years. However, many people can stop at just a few M&Ms; or only eat one single Oreo and be completely satisfied. Sugar addiction, and thus sugar withdrawal, does not apply to all who eat refined sugar often. Some people though, through a combination of genetics and environment, more easily develop addictive behaviors [1].

Sugar is particularly interesting because it is partially composed of glucose- a chemical necessary for life. The brain is clever and knows to make you feel good when eating something beneficial. Fat is also necessary for life, but the brain understands fat and sugar in different ways. Fat activates the part of the brain associated with a good ‘mouth-feel’ but sugar activates the reward center of the brain [2].

Any abused substance damages the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which assists in decision making and moderating behavior [1].

Sugar Withdrawal

An addiction to refined sugar literally changes the way the brain functions.

Like with any drug, the brain responds by being in a heightened state. The brain is used to having sugar around and wants to remain in this heightened, altered state. When you stop eating sugar after being addicted, your brain fights hard to retain its new state and wants you to consume more sugar. Your brain has become dependent on sugar.

In sugar withdrawal, your body is trying to influence you not to give up refined sugar. After all, your brain is resistant to change. It has already formed pathways that confirm easy access to refined sugar is a good thing, and your brain doesn’t want you to stop. Withdrawal is the brain’s attempt to keep you eating refined sugar.

Physical Responses to Sugar Withdrawal

As mentioned above, an addicted brain differs from a non-addicted brain. The pre-frontal cortex is compromised. However, there are physical responses you can feel. Many of these responses are similar to those of any substance abuse withdrawal.

The physical symptoms of sugar withdrawal may include:

  • Headaches
  • Intense cravings
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Shakes

 

Emotional Responses to Sugar Withdrawal

Addiction of any kind has an emotional component. From my personal experience, emotional responses to sugar withdrawal include:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Hopelessness
  • Depression

Other emotional responses can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Agitation
  • Anger

Everyone is different, so your emotional responses will likely be different than mine.

Coping with Sugar Withdrawal

Any addiction is difficult to quit on your own. There are many free resources you can utilize to help you get through your withdrawal. I have found Overeaters Anonymous meetings extremely helpful. There you will find a community of people who have some sort of food addiction, many to refined sugar [3]. Through Overeaters Anonymous, you can also get a personal sponsor who will use their experience to help you navigate yours.

It is important to spend time understanding your relationship with sugar. With the help of a psychologist,

you can figure out why and how your sugar addiction started. If you cannot access a psychologist, spend some time with yourself and try to understand your addiction to sugar a bit better. Maybe you are trying to gain control over a situation which you haven’t had control of previously. Maybe you grew up with strict rules and find sugar as a sort of release. Maybe you just have fond memories associated with sugary foods and seek out comfort in foods that contain refined sugar. Whatever the reason is, try your best to get an understanding around it for your own peace of mind.

If you know sugar withdrawal is coming, try your best to make an action plan. Be around people who are supportive of you quitting sugar. When you want to eat, do something with hands- crafts, writing, reading, playing an instrument or whatever other activity you enjoy. Spend the time you would eat refined sugar doing things that make you happy or discovering new interests or hobbies.

The symptoms will pass and the mental and physical gains will be so worth it.

So, what’s next?

Sugar withdrawal is real and it sucks. Your body and brain are going through changes when they would rather maintain the status quo. If you feel you have a sugar addiction and are going through withdrawal, do yourself the benefit of asking for help and support. A life free from any addiction is worth the work, even if the work is hard. Don’t give up. You’ve got this.

-Ava

References:

  1. NIH article “Biology of Addiction”. NIH News in Health. 2015. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2015/10/biology-addiction
  2. Stice et al. “Relative ability of fat and sugar tastes to activate reward, gustatory, and somatosensory regions.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Dec;98(6):1377-84
  3. Overeaters Anonymous. https://oa.org/

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “What is Sugar Withdrawal?- Physical and Emotional Responses to Quitting Sugar”

  1. Sean Egan says:

    Interesting Site and in this day and age a concern for many millions of people .Just wanted to know whether if you replace the sugar with Honey would you still have same withdrawal symptoms.

    1. admin says:

      Hi Sean! Unfortunately, honey is also a refined sugar so yes, the symptoms would be the same. Honey does raise blood sugar as quickly as white sugar though, so many people do use honey as a sweetener. Also, some people can handle eating refined sugar and not get addicted at all, so honey wouldn’t be an issue for them. For people like myself who are addicted to sugar, we have to be careful to avoid honey. I’m hoping to do a post soon on the chemical similarities of honey and other types of sugars!

  2. azaliha says:

    Hi, Thank you for sharing this. I also addicted to sugar and yes, I have all the symptoms you listed (but I think on moderate level) because personally I have tried several time to quit sugar without success. I love to read more about this addiction.

    1. admin says:

      Thank you for sharing. It is difficult to quit- especially because there are refined sugars hidden in so many foods. Often times, we think we’re making healthy decisions but aren’t aware of all of the different types of refined sugar. With persistence and good information, we’ll get there!

  3. Mulry says:

    This post is definitely for me. Great content and thank you for sharing! quick question, What is the benefits of sugar withdrawal and how long does it takes to see the difference?

    1. admin says:

      Thanks! For me, the benefits have been a reduction in body fat percentage, fewer mood swings, and most importantly, loss of cravings. I think it will depend on the person, but the professionals that I’ve talked to said in about 3 weeks you can start to see the benefits and won’t have sugar withdrawal symptoms anymore.

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