If you have been eating too much sugar or are actually addicted to sugar itself then you may experience a sugar withdrawal headache when you remove it from your diet. But why does this happen and why do you get a headache when you withdraw from sugar?
This is caused because your brain can start to become used to the energy supplies that high sugar content can provide, and when you remove it from your diet, the resulting fluctuations in blood sugar levels and hormones can cause the brain to go into withdrawal, causing temporary headaches.
Why does sugar give you a headache?
It’s not only when you quit sugar that you might get headaches, as sugar is just as likely to produce headaches from actually eating it, rather than removing it from your diet. Consuming high levels of sugar can spike your blood sugar levels, which triggers the release of insulin. This hormone extracts the sugar from the bloodstream and delivers it to the cells in the form of glucose, which the cells then use as an energy source.
The problem is that when you spike your blood sugar levels with too much sugar, insulin will overcompensate, removing too much sugar from the blood. This can create low blood sugar which can then create a headache, which is also sometimes known as a sugar hangover.
Sugar can have all sorts of nasty effect if you eat too much of it, which are caused due to the properties of sugar itself, and more importantly, fructose, which makes up around half of all types of sugar. So to understand why you get a sugar withdrawal headache, you need to understand how sugar interacts with you when you eat too much, and also what happens when you cut it from your diet.
The many different types of sugar
There is a common myth that some types of sugar are more ‘healthy’ than others. While this isn’t entirely false, it pays to understand what sugar is made from and how it reacts with your body once you eat it.
Pretty much every single type of sugar or syrup, be it white table sugar, brown cane sugar, honey or agave, it gets broken down into glucose and fructose once it’s digested. The glucose can be processed by any and every cell in the human body, and is the energy source for all cells.
It's all about the fructose
Fructose however can only be broken down in the liver, and often gets stored in fat cells as a backup energy source for later use. Over eating sugar due to an addiction can overload the liver and result in visceral fat around your organs. There are all sorts of other health issues that too much sugar can cause - I've written a blog here going into more detail about why too much sugar is bad for you.
Below is a list of over 60 different names for sugar, so no matter what it's called, there isn't really such thing as a 'healthy' sugar if you are eating too much of it.
Why we get addicted to sugar
It’s also the fructose that ends up causing an addiction to sugar too, as it is a highly addictive substance. When we eat sugar, it triggers the release of dopamine, which is also called the ‘happy hormone’ because it makes us feel good! So repeated release of this hormone creates a craving for it, resulting in 'withdrawal symptoms' if we don't get our fix!
How to quit sugar
Understanding how much sugar you might be eating is the first step to overcoming any type of addiction. You really need to take a look at your diet and understand how much sugar might be sneaking it’s way into your food. I've written an extensive blog here with a complete guide on quitting sugar if you'd like to cut it out from your diet.
The side effects of quitting sugar
So can sugar withdrawal cause a headache? Yes, it can cause headaches, as well as tiredness and even flu like symptoms in some people when they stop eating sugar. For other people there are almost no sugar withdrawal symptoms at all - it really all has a lot to do with how much sugar you have been eating and for how long you've been eating it.
I was addicted to sugar from my teenage years and took until my mid thirties for me to do anything about it, so that was a long part of my life where I was eating this stuff that was just making me sick. Even so, I didn’t really suffer too badly with any sugar withdrawal symptoms when I eventually quit, and in any case, these types of symptoms made me realise just how much harm all that sugar must have been doing to me in the first place.
How long will a sugar withdrawal headache last?
This is a difficult question to answer as it is entirely dependent on the individual circumstances along with the level of sugar consumption and addiction. If you have been sugar dependent for many years and were eating a lot of sugar, then you may get headaches for a couple of days, maybe more. I had been addicted for over twenty years, but barely had a headache at all, so it's all subjective and down to the individual.
What I will say though is that a little bit of discomfort is absolutely worth a lifetime free from sugar addiction and all of the negative health issues that come with it!
Sugar withdrawal headache relief
Just like any other headache, there are several options you can look to for relief. If you are able to take time in a darker environment, away from bright lights and loud noises and can rest, or ideally sleep, then this can provide relief. Alternatively there are other pharmaceutical options in the form of paracetamol or aspirin, although I personally would always try to rest or sleep off a headache whenever possible.