You may have heard of sugar withdrawal and might be wondering what it’s all about? Maybe the thought of it even scares you stiff and is putting you off going sugar free?
Perhaps you've heard crazy rumours and all sorts of strange tales about the stages of a sugar detox and people having sugar crashes when they quit the white stuff?
Or what about flu like symptoms, a sugar withdrawal headache or even sugar withdrawal fatigue?
Well worry no more, because I’m going to fill you in on exactly what a sugar withdrawal is, and what physical withdrawal symptoms of sugar you might experience if you do decide to quit sugar, either alone or with my 21 Day Sugar Detox Program (which is specifically designed to prevent as many of the following symptoms as possible!)
You might experience things like cravings, headaches, irritability and other side effects, and we'll go through them all fully along with how and why they are likely to affect you if you stop eating sugar.
And bear in mind that the severity of any symptoms will also depend on how much sugar you eat, and how long you have been eating it.
As this blog goes into detail about sugar addiction, cravings and sugar withdrawal symptoms, there is also an FAQ at the end for quick answers to all the questions you are likely to have about the withdrawal symptoms of sugar.
You're not alone!
There are literally millions of people around the world who are craving sweets and hooked on sugar, often without even realising it, and the crazy thing is, as I explain later, you'll find out how a sugar addict may already experience most of the symptoms of sugar withdrawal every single day, just on a more reduced level.
You wouldn't believe just how much excessive sugar can affect how we feel and look. There is literally no other dietary change that you can make that can have such an impact on so many aspects of your overall health and looks.
What are the benefits of quitting sugar?
Before we got to the negative sides of a sugar withdrawal, it might be a good time to highlight all of the wonderful benefits you can expect by cutting sugar out of your diet.
I have written an extensive post here - 17 Amazing Things That Happen When You Stop Eating Sugar, outlining just some of the benefits, including:
A healthier heart
Less mood swings
A better memory
Increased sex drive
Better quality of sleep
Younger looking skin
Less chance of type 2 diabetes
Less chance of getting cancer
Fewer joint pains
A healthier liver
Less fatty organs
So it's worth reminding yourself that even if you might suffer some temporary physical symptoms of sugar withdrawal, the short and long term benefits of quitting sugar far outweigh any mild discomfort you experience when you first remove sugar from your diet.
And another thing to consider is that just because you decide to do a sugar detox, it doesn't mean you can never eat sugar again. By quitting sugar for a specific period of time, you are able to reset your palate and re calibrate your dependancy.
This means that things will taste sweeter and you regain control of your eating, preventing an addiction making poor food choices for you.
Hooked On Sugar
So why does sugar affect you like this, and why is sugar just soooo addictive?
Have you ever wondered why you keep on eating this stuff when you may have read or heard about how bad it is for you?
Well the reason we crave sweets or chocolate, or can't 'just say no' to a slice of cake the same way we might say no to a piece of cheese, is down to sugar's addictive properties.
Sugar is so addictive that in tests with lab rats, the rats became more addicted to sugar than they did to cocaine!
When we eat sugar it activates the pleasure and reward part of the brain and releases the hormone dopamine, which makes us feel happy.
And like any other drug, the more we get, the more we want.
Studies have shown that continued bingeing on sugar releases more and more dopamine, which it what keeps us hooked.
But once you take it away, it creates a craving for that dopamine hit, and because it makes sweet treats taste so good, we’re happy to oblige, feeding the craving and starting the whole cycle over again.
Now of course, sugar, like anything in moderation, is not bad for you in small amounts, but the problem is that so many of us are simply not eating sugar in moderation - we are eating tons of the stuff.
So how much daily sugar is safe?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) currently recommends no more that 25g (7 teaspoons) of sugar for a woman and 35g (9 teaspoons) for a man.
In these kind of quantities, sugar won't really do us much harm - the problem is, a lot of us are eating way more than that. I certainly was until I quit sugar!
As humans, we really aren't designed to cope with large amounts of sugar, and up until very recently, it just wasn't something that people ate.
It's crazy to think that only 150 years ago, we literally didn't have sugar in our diet at all - and now we're going mad for the stuff!
Fructose makes you eat more sugar
One of the main issues with the sugar in sweets and treats is that it is made up of roughly 50% glucose and 50% fructose, and it's the fructose that causes most of the problems.
Not only does fructose not trigger any kind of ‘full’ feeling in your body like pretty much all other foods you eat, it actually does the opposite - it keeps on making you want more!
That was fine back in the days when the only source of sugar was the occasional berry or piece of fruit - it's not so good when we're paying for our petrol or diesel and we're faced with a wall of chocolate treats!
We simple aren’t designed to process the amounts of sugar in the current western diets, and without wanting to ‘sugar coat it’ - it’s killing millions of people every year.
Can you blame your genetics?
And unfortunately, a sugar addiction may not be entirely down to the sugar itself - tests have shown that you might become more addicted to sugar because of your DNA.
Studies have indicated that different people perceive sweetness differently, and so it means that some people can eat more sweet stuff than others.
I'm sure you know people who just don't have a sweet tooth at all?
That could simply be down to their genetics.
The power of a habit
We can easily become hooked on sugar through a combination of it's addictive properties, our own genetics and the formation of habits.
Wikipedia says that habit formation is the process by which 'a behaviour, through regular repetition, becomes automatic or habitual'.
And interestingly, as the habit is forming, it can be analysed in three distinct parts: The cue, the behaviour and the reward.
The cue is the thing that causes the habit to come about - and a craving for sugar would definitely be a cause here, although simply becoming hungry at a certain time of day could also cause this.
The behaviour might be eating biscuits at 11am every morning, or having a dessert after every evening meal.
And the reward is the dopamine hit and the craving getting it's 'fix'.
So before we know it, we have created a sugar habit, or habits, because this might be happening several time throughout the day.
And the most dangerous part of this process is that it goes unnoticed, because according to the description of habit forming, there is 'no self analysis whilst undertaking routine tasks'.
In a nutshell, we create these bad habits and have no idea we are even doing it.
The ‘quick and easy’ trap
As our lives become more and more busy, we tend to give less and less time to our health and wellbeing.
Our grandparents may have had a far simpler diet than us, but it was more than likely far healthier because the only real option was to cook from fresh with simple, raw ingredients.
In our world of ‘convenience’ it’s so easy to just grab something ‘quick and easy’ which is more than likely full of sugar, salt and preservatives.
Add in multimillion pound ad campaigns into the mix, run by huge food corporations telling us that this is cool or quick and easy or allegedly 'healthy' and it seems that people are veering further and further from real cooking.
All in all, it's a tough time to want to try and get back to health levels of sugar consumption - there are a lot of things stacked against you. So where to begin...
So how do you start to cut sugar out of your life?
First, you might need to admit you have a problem with sugar.
Like any type of addiction or problem with substance abuse, the first and most important step is understanding and admitting that you have the problem in the first place.
Just like when an alcoholic stands up in front of the other attendees at a meeting and says “I’m an alcoholic”, you need to be totally honest and ask yourself if you have a problem. Do you have the signs of sugar addiction? Do you often crave sweets and candy? Are you just eating too much sugar?
And if so, do you want to do something about it?
It's so easy to bury your head in the sand and carry on like I did for years, mainly because I couldn't imagine my life without all of those lovely sweet treats.
But as soon as you decide to give yourself a break from all that sugar, you'll be amazed at how soon you can start to see and feel the benefits.
Sugar is ingrained in our everyday lives
One of the biggest issue's we have today is that high sugar consumption isn’t really seen as a problem in day to day life.
It can sneak into our daily diets without us really noticing or thinking too much about it.
Maybe you might start your day with a breakfast of orange juice (24g or 6 teaspoons), or coffee with sugar (4g or 1 teaspoon), or toast made with white bread (1.5g or 1/3 teaspoon), or a 'healthy' cereal like Special K with semi skimmed milk (14g or 3.5 teaspoons)
So before you’ve even walked out of your front door you may well have already consumed your recommended daily sugar allowance - so far the above total is 43.5g or nearly 11teaspoons.
Then a mid morning snack might be another coffee (4g or 1 teaspoon), and maybe biscuits or a muffin (36g or 9 teaspoons) at 11 am.
Then lunch followed a fruit yoghurt (20g / 5 tsp).
Maybe a can of standard coke? (39g / 9.75tsp
An evening dinner of pasta with sauce (13g / 3tsp)
So we are already over 155g which is over 38 teaspoons of sugar and we haven't even got to dessert yet!
That's more than 5 times the recommended daily amount for a woman!
And the thing is, this all sounds like a ‘normal’ enough day - we’re not talking about eating whole big bars of chocolate here, but even this kind of diet can be putting you in a place where you are consuming dangerous levels of sugar.
It slowly creeps into our daily lives without us ever really noticing.
So maybe take a step back, really look at what you eat on a daily basis and see where it all sneaks into your diet and ask yourself, are you eating too much sugar?
So, do you think you are you a sugar addict?
You may not think you have an issue with sugar, but if you are reading this, them I'm guessing you might?
And a really easy way to tell if you do have a problem with eating too much sugar is by experimenting with taking it out of your diet.
Think of any sweet snack you normally eat and not only image removing it from your daily routine, but maybe try actually doing it?
If you normally have a muffin around 3pm, how do you feel if you remove that from your afternoon routine?
The first thing that you are likely to experience is a craving for sugar or something sweet - these are the signs of sugar addiction.
You will normally have been satisfying these cravings on a daily basis with a lifestyle habit.
Once you get past the cravings stage, this is when you may feel any of the sugar withdrawal symptoms start to take hold.
You won’t normally have experienced these because you will have been feeding your addiction - but maybe now it’s time to tackle the beast head on?
How will a sugar withdrawal affect me?
The effects listed below that you might experience from a sugar detox are totally down to how much sugar is in your current diet - the more sugar you are eating now means that you might experience more of these symptoms when you quit.
You may not even experience any of these at all, but if you do, they are completely normal and bear in mind that any or all of these symptoms are temporary.
They may last for a few hours or even a few days max, but once you break through to the other side, you’ll have detoxed your body, forcing it to rely on more natural sources of glucose for it’s energy, including stored fat.
And remember, if you decide to quit using my 21 Day Sugar Detox Program then you will be safe in the knowledge that everything in the program is designed to minimise any sugar withdrawal symptoms, helping you to quit sugar as simply and painlessly as possible.
So what are the symptoms of sugar withdrawal?
Going cold turkey and cutting sugar out of your diet completely you may experience some or all of the following:
This is the most likely symptom you will suffer from and can be one of the most difficult symptoms to overcome.
Cravings can be very intense for some people and can be difficult to deal with, but this is where sheer will power comes into force - along with some of the tips I outline below.
Sugar Withdrawal Headache
You may experience headaches, which are caused by the changes in your body chemistry from the toxins leaving your bloodstream.
The changes in your blood sugar levels can also cause headaches, and they also may be caused because you may feel stressed or tense during the detox.
Most people will experience some form of irritability and mood swings.
You might become short tempered as you deal with cravings and you don't get the usual dopamine hit, which may make you irritable or anxious.
This will even out after a short while as you recalibrate.
It is possible that the same things causing your mood swings can also make you feel like you have a mild depression.
This won't be for long and you'll soon feel better as you look forward to a new healthier life!
You might find that your sleep pattern will be disrupted at first, again this is down to changes in your blood sugars as well as anxiety.
This should pass after a day or two.
Even though sugar can give you an energy boost immediately after consuming it, you get a payback later with increased lethargy.
By cutting it out of your diet, you might miss some of the lifts it used to give you and you may feel an overall fatigue, but this should soon pass as your blood sugar levels out and you start to avoid those energy peaks and troughs.
So, you might wonder how and when these symptoms might hit you?
Below are the likely stages of withdrawal you may or may not experience. Everyone reacts differently depending on how long and how heavy the sugar addiction has been.
In some cases the effects may not really go beyond the physical and mental craving, for others the symptoms may be more 'flu' like.
Some people experience mild 'flu' like symptoms when they cut out sugar completely.
This is an unlikely symptom of quitting sugar and if you do suffer from this it will go after a day or two max.
It is also possible that you will experience physical shaking if you were previously consuming large quantities of sugar.
The 6 stages of sugar withdrawal
The sugar withdrawal timeline is likely to be different for each individual depending on your own level of sugar dependance, but is likely to go as follows:
This is easy!
So, on your first day going sugar free, initially you’re OK, you are powered by your motivation at the thought of a new healthier lifestyle and a freedom from addiction!
You'll be thinking there is no problem, because your body hasn’t had chance to realise what’s going on... that is until your blood sugar drops and you reach the point in your day where you would normally get your sugar ‘fix’...
Then the cravings kick in...
Your brain will be asking for it’s usual dopamine hit provided by the fructose and your lowered blood sugar levels will be causing your body to demand more glucose.
Your brain chemistry becomes unbalanced. This is the part where you normally cave in, but this time you are going to fight the feeling! The meal plans included in my 21 Day Sugar Detox Program are carefully put together to include ingredients that contain vitamins and minerals that can specifically help with cravings.
A headache might develop.
Time to drink in plenty of water and take a pain killer if necessary as a short term solution - just don’t give in to the sugar beast! You've no doubt had headaches from eating too much chocolate in the past, so what's another?
At least this time it's actually because you are doing something good to yourself!
You might start to feel aches.
Again, better to take an asprin to get you through than give yourself another sugar hit. And drink plenty of water to flush out any toxins. Remember, these symptoms are only temporary!
You can start to get 'hangry' and moody!
This can often be the effects of low blood sugar, and are the same symptoms as becoming very hungry, so make sure to keep yourself full with small, savoury snack at regular intervals
These snacks really can mean the difference between success and failure, so make sure that you have plenty to hand - things like savoury popcorn, baked crunchy chickpeas or nuts and seeds are all great.
Keep on nibbling on these to fend off any hunger pangs.
Also, drink plenty of water. Did I mention that already? OK, just in case, here’s another reminder - drink plenty of water!!
You made it!
This is the best stage of course, it's the moment when you realise you've broken the back of your sugar addiction! It's the moment when you realise that all of the mild discomfort you may have just gone through is all worth it and you are finally back in control of your eating habits.
So was it worth it? Of course it was, and remember, you may not even experience ANY of these symptoms, this is a worse case scenario, and even so, just remember what you are putting yourself through every day if you're eating too much sugar.
Cold turkey or cut down slowly?
By cutting out sugar completely you are likely to experience withdrawal symptoms more than by cutting sugar out of your diet gently.
But in my experience, cold turkey is the way to go.
Like quitting cigarettes or alcohol, the best technique is to cut it out altogether, rather than drawing out the process - I've always been one for pulling off the plaster in one quick go rather than trying to peel it gently and drawing out the pain!
But remember, when you do cut sugar out of your diet, and even though you might experience some mild withdrawal symptoms, you'll be doing your body a whole lot of good in the process!
So try to concentrate on long term goals like losing a dress size rather than the short term satisfaction of eating a cake!
Knowing when and what to expect can give you a real helping hand when you quit sugar.
In my sugar detox program I explain how important it is to acknowledge your addiction to sugar and know when your cravings are likely to strike.
And by being prepared ahead of your detox, you will know what to expect, when to expect it, and be fully ready, giving yourself the best chance of success.
And remember, this isn't forever
It really is worth riding the storm and dealing with the symptoms, they will be short lived This really isn't forever!
And we’re not just talking about the sugar detox symptoms themselves here, we’re talking about being able to eat sugar again.
The main reason to do a sugar detox is simply to reset your system and break the cycle of craving and addiction.
So once you break your cycle of addiction, you can begin with a clean slate, deciding where and when you want any kind of sweet treat, rather than your body's craving making that decision for you.
Boredom can be bad for cravings
We often eat out of sheer boredom, and thinking about food can lead to a physical desire for it, so try to keep yourself occupied at times when you might normally succumb to a biscuit or piece of cake.
The withdrawal symptoms shouldn’t last more than a day or two at most, (although for some people it may last even longer) so it might be best to plan to detox over a weekend and make sure you have plenty to keep your mind occupied.
Get a little help from your friends
Don’t forget to let your friends, family and work colleagues know about your sugar free journey.
By telling people what you are doing, they can expect the odd mood swing and hopefully support you throughout the process.
How to deal with sugar withdrawals and keep the cravings to a minimum
So now that you are fully up to speed with all of the different effects that may effect you on a sugar detox, lets look at some of the ways you can minimise any of the symptoms should they occur.
Drink it in!
Hunger can be as dangerous an enemy as a sugar craving itself, and believe it or not, water can actually satisfy the feeling of hunger and make you feel full.
By allowing yourself to get hungry, you allow yourself to make poor food choices and decisions.
In the past you might have just grabbed something sweet to satisfy that hungry feeling.
It’s also easy to confuse thirst with hunger, so whenever you get a craving, go for a drink instead of a snack.
Sometimes all it might take is a glass of cold water to kick those cravings to the curb.
You’ll also need to drink in plenty of water if you are going to load up on high fibre foods mentioned below.
Pack in the protein
Not only is protein an essential part of our diet and it provides the building blocks for our muscles and tissues, but it also helps reduce feelings of hunger and sugar cravings.
Ghrelin is the hormone that triggers hunger, and a high protein diet cuts down the levels of Grehlin, making us feel less hungry.
This is the exact opposite of fructose, which can trigger sensations of hunger the more you eat!
Always have high protein snacks on standby for whenever those cravings kick in, eating a handful of almonds for example can really help you cope.
Fill up on fibre
It is fibre’s job to help move our food through our body while the nutrients are extracted.
It doesn’t actually get digested itself, but passes out through the other end.
Fibre is a fantastic regulator as it keeps us feeling full as well as keeping blood sugar levels normal.
By eating a diet with plenty of fibre rich foods, you can prevent your blood sugars from dropping too much which should help stave off many of the sugar withdrawal symptoms.
High fibre foods include vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Fit in some fats
Eating healthy fats can really help reduce cravings because fat is digested slowly into your system, making you feel fuller longer.
It does this by slowing down the digestion process when it enters the small intestine, decreasing appetite.
Healthy fats come from things like eggs, tuna and salmon, avocados, nuts like almonds, pistachios and walnuts, seeds like sunflower and chia, plus olives and olive oil.
Swap sweet for savoury
Keeping savoury snacks at the ready can be a life saver if you are going through a sugar detox.
Run it out
Exercising and working out are some of the greatest ways you can overcome cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
Exercise naturally reduces stress and releases hormones that will make you feel great too, so going for a run or a walk can be a great help
Sleep it off
Like any change to your body, be it strenuous excercise or getting a bug, the best thing you can do to recover is get plenty of zeds.
Sleeping is our natural way of healing and recuperation, allowing our cells to rejuvinate, so try to give yourself the best possible chance by getting plenty of sleep.
Although a change in diet like removing sugar might initially affect your sleep patterns, you should soon settle back into your normal routine, and if anything, you should end up having much better sleep without fluctuating levels of sugar in your blood stream.
It may also be worth taking a supplement like Chromium (50 - 100 msg once or twice daily during your sugar detox.
This is excellent at regulating blood sugar levels as it helps insulin work more effectively at removing sugar from your bloodstream whilst also nourishing cells, helping to minimise the effects of cravings.
Be kind to yourself, now...
If your body is likely to go through some minor stresses during a detox, don’t think about quitting sugar at a time where you may be under additional pressure from elsewhere, like two days before a big work presentation!
Maybe plan your detox so that you have a quiet weekend to get over the initial symptoms, when you can read a good book, enjoy a glass of red wine, run yourself a bath and generally allow yourself time to get through it.
…and in the future
And remember, you're doing this for both short and long term health benefits.
We get so wrapped up in day to day living that we don’t often have time to think that far ahead, and consider our older selves, but sometimes it really is beneficial to take a moment, to be mindful of yourself, and realise that your actions now could have a really positive effect further down the line.
So take time to be kind to the future you and suck up some mild discomfort now - you'll thank yourself later if you do!
Don’t be afraid!
Although the thought of sugar withdrawal can sound scary, it really doesn’t need to be, and always remember that these symptoms are just temporary, whereas the negative effects of a high sugar diet can end up being permanent.
In many cases, the symptoms can be barely noticeable, so it's certainly not worth putting off a sugar detox because of some mild discomfort.
And by accepting a little amount of suffering now you’ll be doing youself a whole load of favours in the future.
I have created a complete 21 day sugar detox program with recipes and meal plans specifically designed to provide the right vitamins, nutrients and minerals along with protein, fibre and fats to ease you through the process with the absolute minimum symptoms.
The program also has daily emails, video tutorials and guided meditations to make sure you have the best possible chance of breaking the cycle of sugar addiction for good and regaining control of your food choices.
Just because you’ve decided to detox from sugar doesn’t mean life can never be sweet again.
Sugar actually reduces your ability to taste sweetness, so once you have detoxed, you will recalibrate your taste buds, and everything will naturally taste sweeter.
By going on a sugar detox, you can completely reset your tolerance levels, break the cycle of addiction and put yourself back in control of your food choices.
And once you are back in control, you can treat yourself to sweet treats like the ones on my recipe pages.
You won’t need to eat nearly as much sweet stuff because of your newly realigned taste buds and anything sweet that you do eat will be from a rational choice, rather than an uncontrollable reaction to an addiction.
So why not give it a try, you have nothing to lose and so much to gain!
Sugar Withdrawal FAQ
Q. What causes sugar addiction?
A. A combination of things cause us to get hooked on sugar. The fructose that makes up around 50% or all sugars is highly addictive, has no way or triggering a 'full' sensation and causes the happy hormone dopamine to be released. Combined with bad eating habits, expensive marketing campaigns and a fast paced lifestyle, it easy to become hooked on sugar.
Q. What causes sugar withdrawal?
A. Removing regular, large quantities of sugar from your diet can cause changes in blood sugar levels, as well as recalibrating hormone levels and removing toxins resulting in temporary symptoms.
Q. What are the symptoms of sugar withdrawal?
A. Possible symptoms are sugar withdrawal headaches, sugar cravings, body aches and mood swings. These are usually very mild and won't last very long.
Q. Will I suffer from sugar withdrawal symptoms if I quit sugar?
A. Depending on how much sugar you have been eating and for how long will determine the likelihood of experiencing sugar detox symptoms. Some people experience some or all of these symptoms whereas other people experience none at all.
Q. How to reduce the effects of sugar withdrawal?
A. Eating a diet high in vitamins and minerals can offset symptoms. Magnesium, L-Glutamine, Vitamin B and D, Omega 3 Fatty Acids, Chromium and Zinc are all important at helping curb cravings. Getting plenty of exercise and plenty of rest are both important as well as making sure you drink plenty of water. Fill up on meals hight in protein and good fats and don't forget to ask friends for support!
Q. Do I need to do a sugar detox?
A. If you are eating a lot of sugary foods and drinking a lot of sodas then chances are you are eating more than the daily recommended amount and as a result it may be affecting your overall health and wellbeing. Women should eat no more that 25g (7tsp) and men should eat no more than 35g (9tsp) of sugar per day.
Signs of a sugar addiction include:
Cravings for something sweet after meals
Energy slumps mid morning and mid afternoon
Difficulty eating just one or two biscuits or just a single slice of cake
Extra weight around your belly
General lethargy and brain fog
Q. What are the benefits of quitting sugar?
A. Quitting sugar is one of the simplest changes you can make that will result in so many overall health benefits, including weight loss, better skin, improved sleep, more energy along with a reduced chance of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
If you would like to quit sugar for good and regain control of your food choices, you can transform your life with my 21 Day Sugar Detox Program.