Sugar refers to short-chain carbohydrates that are sweet and used in food. Most people know sugar as a whitish crystal-like powder with a sweet taste that is often added to food. Each year, hundreds of millions of tons of table sugar are produced across the world. The sugar that you eat is scientifically referred to as “sucrose” which breaks down into both fructose and glucose in the body. Although sugar is a staple ingredient in many foods, some people believe that it is unhealthy.
Those who believe sugar is unhealthy may attempt to cut consumption of sugar and/or withdraw from it altogether. Despite the fact that some people claim to experience sugar withdrawals, the severity of symptoms experienced is up for debate. Those who are anti-sugar tend to argue that frequent sugar consumption can lead to mental health problems such as attention problems, hyperactivity, and foggy thinking.
Additionally some believe that sugar consumption takes a toll on their physical health – internally and in regards to gaining weight. It seems as though sugar affects everyone differently – some people are naturally more sensitive to its effects, while others may not notice much of any psychological change from sugar consumption vs. going sugar free. In any event, if you are considering the removal of sugar from your diet, below are some symptoms that people have experienced during withdrawal.
Factors that influence Sugar withdrawal
Below are some factors that may influence your withdrawal from the substance that is sugar. Things that may play a role in your withdrawal include: time span over which you consumed sugar, your average daily consumption, your individual physiology, and whether you just quit cold turkey or gradually cut your consumption.
1. Time Span
How long have you been consuming sugar? If you’re like most people, you have been consuming sugar for most of your life. The longer you have been consuming sugar, the more difficult it is going to be to just completely cut it from your life. Most average diets are filled with considerable sugar. The more sugar that you consume for a longer period of time, the tougher it is going to be to quit.
2. Daily Consumption
How much sugar do you consume on a daily basis? A couple hundred years ago, the average American only ate about 2 lbs. of sugar annually. In the 1970’s, the average American consumed about 120 lbs. of sugar per year. These days, your average American citizen consumes nearly 152 lbs. of sugar per year or 3 lbs. per week.
This is a pretty drastic change compared to what people were eating in the 1800’s. In general, the less sugar you consume on a daily basis, the easier the withdrawal process and the less likely you are to have severe discontinuation symptoms.
3. Individual Physiology
It should be noted that everyone is affected by sugar differently. Some people are more sensitive to its effects, while others won’t notice much of a withdrawal when they stop including it in their diet. Some people will have a more difficult time coping with cravings and other psychological symptoms when they withdraw.
A lot of your personal experience will be based on your individual physiology. Certain people are able to adjust to effects of cutting sugar from their diets quicker than others.
4. Cold Turkey vs. Tapering
Most people that quit consuming sugar do so by quitting “cold turkey.” In general, quitting the consumption of sugar without gradually weaning down consumption can lead to more extreme withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms will likely be more pronounced among people who quit cold turkey after having consistently ingested large amounts of sugar for years.
If you consume a significant amount of sugar daily, it may be best to gradually cut your consumption over the course of a week or two. By gradually lowering the amount of sugar in your diet, you are gradually adapting to this change and it is thought to be an easier process.
Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms: List of Possibilities
Below is a list of possible withdrawal symptoms that you may experience when you cut sugar from your diet. Perhaps the most prevalent symptom that people experience is a strong craving for sugar and/or carbohydrates during withdrawal. Also understand that not everyone will go through all of the symptoms listed below – withdrawal varies in severity and intensity based on the person.
- Anger: If you quit cold turkey, your mood may dip and you may notice that you are more angry and irritable than usual. The anger should not last more than a couple weeks, but may be difficult to cope with if it was unexpected.
- Anxiety: Various individuals have reported feelings of anxiety when they drop sugar from their diets. It is known that sugar can have an influence on dopamine levels and activity – which could be the culprit for these feelings. Certain individuals are more sensitive than others in regard to experiencing anxiety upon discontinuation.
- Appetite changes: Eating sugar can lead some people to experience increased cravings for carbohydrates. Additionally when you stop consuming sugar, you may notice that your appetite experiences some degree of fluctuation. Initially you may eat more or less than usual, but it should balance out.
- Cravings: The most obvious effect when you stop sugar is that you’re going to crave it. The cravings for sugar may be intense and difficult to overcome. If you stay the course and stay self-disciplined, you will eventually reach a point where these cravings subside. It may help to remove sugar substances from your house and/or keep them out of sight so that you don’t fall victim to the cravings.
- Depression: People can experience a crash in mood when they first come off of sugar. This dip in mood is typically not very extreme, but can feel like a low grade depression. Eventually your mood should bounce back and stabilize.
- Dizziness: In more extreme cases of withdrawal, individuals have reported feeling dizzy when they stop consuming sugar. Most people will not feel “dizzy” when they stop including sugar in their diets, but more sensitive people can.
- Fatigue: Sugar can provide some people with short-term boosts in energy. When a person quits including sugar in their diet, it is possible to experience some general fatigue and lethargy during the first couple weeks of withdrawal. Over the long term, a person should notice that normal energy levels return.
- Flu-like: In some cases, people actually experience a severe reaction to cutting sugar from their diet that results in very low-grade flu-like symptoms. If you have this severe of a reaction, it should subside within a few days. Most people will not experience this particular symptom when they cut sugar, but everyone is affected differently.
- Headaches: Initially some people experience headaches when they remove sugar from their diet. These headaches can be a result of tension and/or the changes you are going through by detoxifying your body from sugar.
- Insomnia: Dropping sugar from your diet may temporarily result in changes in sleep patterns and arousal. You may notice that you are unable to fall asleep at a proper time because you feel anxious or your arousal has changed; this will eventually go away. Consider taking melatonin or using some sort of relaxation exercise before bed if it’s a big problem.
- Irritability: During the acute phase of cutting sugar from your diet, you may become snappy as a result of not having the sugar that you crave. Sugar can influence dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure in the brain. When we are no longer getting the same stimulation, we may become irritable.
- Mood swings: It is fairly common to experience minor mood swings when you initially cut sugar from your diet. The mood swings may consist of some minor depression, anxiety, and/or other negative feelings. Eventually your moods will stabilize without the influence of sugar, but it may take a short while for your brain to adjust.
- Shakes: In some cases, people can actually shake when they drastically cut their sugar consumption. These shakes are usually a result of cold turkey withdrawal, but are typically not too severe; they will eventually subside. This is actually a fairly common symptom among people who stop consuming sugar that were previously consuming high amounts.
- Sleep changes: The withdrawal process may affect sleep to a certain extent. During the withdrawal you may notice changes in energy levels, arousal, and mood. All of these factors are thought to influence our ability to get a good night’s sleep. Do not be surprised if your sleep is slightly influenced.
- Weight changes: Most people notice that they lose weight when they drop sugar consumption. Weight loss is generally due to the fact that people stop eating unhealthy foods and drinking beverages that are sugar-filled.
Sugar Withdrawal Duration: How long does it take?
There is no exact science suggesting that sugar withdrawal takes a specific amount of time. The duration for which you experience withdrawal symptoms will largely depend on you as a person. Some people are able to quickly adjust to functioning without sugar, while others may have a difficult time resisting cravings and the feelings that they get when they have something sugary.
Based on various experiences, most people do notice that they go through some sort of a withdrawal period when they drop sugar from their diet. However, the length of this withdrawal period is subject to variation. Some people felt considerably better and were virtually withdrawal-symptom free within a few days, while it took others up to a full month to feel completely natural and detoxified from sugar.
In general, it is thought that the reason people experience withdrawal symptoms in the first place is largely based on individual sensitivity as well as dopamine. When you stop consuming sugar, your dopamine levels may temporarily drop – leading to various psychological symptoms. To help address this problem, it is recommended to consume lean protein, fruits like blueberries and apples, as well as nuts for additional nutrients.
It is also recommended to avoid sugar-replacement products as these substances act similarly on the brain and can also have eerily similar discontinuation symptoms (e.g. aspartame withdrawal symptoms). Additionally if you are a big soda drinker and/or like energy drinks, you could also be experiencing caffeine withdrawals; this is something to consider. Most would agree that it’s up for debate as to whether there is even such thing as “sugar withdrawal” in the first place.
Some people don’t experience much of any noticeable change when they drop it from their diets, while others notice significant cognitive and psychological changes. If you have successfully weaned yourself off of sugar, feel free to share your experience in the comments section below.