Every day the average US consumer added sugar intake will fall between 20 to 30 teaspoons of table sugar daily. The recommended maximum is 6-9 teaspoons, unless you have a condition that warrants eliminating it completely (which I wholeheartedly recommend as a nutrition specialist!)
Reduced sugar consumption could help fight cancers, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, PCOS, endocrine dysfunctions, and loads of inflammatory conditions. But for many this task seems much too difficult, and can even feel hopeless.
When it comes to eliminating sugar intake, whether for weight loss or to manage or prevent a condition, a sugar detox can be a great way to kickstart it… but with some caveats.
Committing to quit sugar out of love and appreciation for your body and health comes with its own challenges–usually referred to as “detox side effects”.
Surely you’ve read the myriad of unpleasant side effects that can happen once you decide to detox from sugar. (Here’s why you should quit sugar.) Your coworker, friend, or sister have had this thing or that happen when they detoxed. Which makes it plausible to have questions.
And here’s the truth of the matter:
Sugar is a giant asshole. It makes you crave it, it makes you gain weight, it ages you incessantly, and it creates a cycle of binging-guilt-cravings. And also–it’s gonna give you hell if you decide to quit it.
Diving in and really committing to a sugar detox can give you an indication if you’re actually addicted to sugar or not.
This is extremely important, because if you aren’t addicted to sugar, you should be able to do a sugar detox and feel great within a few weeks.
If you are addicted to sugar, sugar detoxes don’t work, and end up wasting time and creating misery, frustration, and self-loathing that could’ve been avoided. (I’ll talk about that more in just a sec, so keep reading!)
So let’s start with what a sugar detox is in the first place, how it creates symptoms, how to manage the symptoms, and what to do instead if you’re truly addicted to sugar so you can stop wasting time and emotions.
What is a sugar detox?
A sugar detox is basically where you eliminate sugar from your diet in an attempt to ‘flush’ sugar out.
People normally do this in an attempt to kickstart weight loss, manage a condition, or just up-level their health and energy levels all day with balanced blood sugar.
Sugar detoxes usually come with nasty side effects that (for the majority of those who do it–especially cold turkey) cause enough discomfort to give up.
So I say it’s better to go into one with your eyes wide open, but also with practical tools and the knowledge that you MAY fail–and if you do, there’s a reason why as well as a better strategy to get through it.
What is sugar withdrawal?
Sugar withdrawal is how our body reacts with unpleasant symptoms when we take sugar and higher glycemic carbs out of our diet.
Most sugar detoxes will do a ‘cold turkey’ approach, which can be really problematic for many people (especially if you’re truly addicted to sugar.)
This is where carbs fit in.
There’s a really big difference in types of carbs, and unfortunately, the food supply includes added sugars in approximately 90% of them, further contributing to the sugar dependence problem.
Sugar (all types) and refined flours (even whole grains ) will create a blood sugar spike that triggers an exaggerated response in the reward system in the brain. And as you can imagine, there are thousands of ‘foods’ that fall into this category (most are processed.)
Basically foods that spike your blood sugar are addictive.
So, first things first– when we consume sugar our bodies release dopamine into the bloodstream. Dopamine is widely known as a ‘happy’ neurotransmitter that is present when our thoughts are most euphoric.
Humans get a dopamine release when we eat anything, not just sugar or carbs. If we didn’t, we’d never want to eat.
But the dopamine release in response to sugar and high glycemic carbs is a problem, because it’s exaggerated, and creates the hallmark symptoms of drug addiction: tolerance (you need more to feel the effect), and withdrawal (icky side effects when you quit it.)
More addictive than cocaine
Sugar has been shown in studies to light up the same areas of the brain that drugs like cocaine and heroin do but is way easier to get than drugs. And what’s worse is that it is considered legal and is in 90% of everything in an average grocery store.
Sugar Intake, Dopamine, and Sugar Addiction
If you consume enough sugar daily your brain is more likely to make an extra effort to achieve that euphoric threshold. Those receptors grow the higher the dosage. Again–this is called tolerance.
These continuous cycles of sugar consumption, hormone releases, and euphoria play major roles in how our brain responds.
Bottom line is that it creates a vicious cycle that involves some sort of trigger, a craving starts, you take an action (eating sugar or bread products), many end up bingeing, and then feel incessant guilt. Until the cycle starts over.
This cycle has many implications of behavioral patterns that are signs of addiction, especially when someone knows they have a condition that must be managed by eliminating sugar and high glycemic carbs, but can’t stop eating them even knowing the detriment to their own health.
Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms
Although we’re all very different, there are many physical and mental symptoms of sugar withdrawal that have been reported and accumulated.
This is helpful because it can prepare you for what withdrawal symptoms could be ahead as well as how to handle it to help you stay steadfast on your sugar-free journey.
The most common sugar withdrawal symptoms and questions
Why do I get headaches when I don’t have sugar?
Headaches are one of the worst sugar detox symptoms and can be a two-fold thing when it comes to sugar detox side effects. On one hand, your body is trying to adjust to a new energy source for your brain and body.
Secondly, a little-known secret is that carbohydrates hold water in the body like salt can. So reducing it can make you dehydrated. This means that you really need to pay attention to how much water you’re drinking to help alleviate sugar detox symptoms.
Can sugar detox feel like the flu?
Yes! Body aches and muscle aches aren’t uncommon. If you’ve ever heard the term ‘keto flu’, it’s the same situation: that person is moving from a high sugar and/or high-carb diet to an extremely low-carb diet, which will produce many of the same symptoms.
In fact, for years every time I tried another sugar detox, I would get these symptoms and think I was getting sick. I didn’t want to further stress my body, so I would quit every time. (Big mistake!)
Muscle aches and pains beyond flu-like symptoms
It is possible for a person’s body to experience general muscle ache and pain in response to a noticeable reduction in sugar intake. For many people this may be severe enough that you may have to consult a pain management provider first.
If you have long dull and annoying abdominal pains then you should examine their frequency to determine their severity. Sugar withdrawal can produce aches reminiscent of fibromyalgia and other similar conditions.
If the symptom lasts more than 3-4 days or longer than 6 weeks it’s advised to see your doctor to rule out any other underlying conditions.
Extreme sugar cravings
One of the nasty things sugar can do is make you feel like your going into a sugar withdrawal situation physically. And when this happens, your body and brain are working together to find some homeostasis.
Again– your body is adjusting to a new energy source, but there are also some reward-system responses from your brain at play here as well. I call these ‘rebound cravings’, and they can keep you coming back over and over again as if sugar is controlling your life.
Sugar cravings vary in severity but typically look like extreme cravings for sweet foods each day. This can include anything from sodas, pastries, chocolate, and other processed foods with added sugars.
Most sugar cravings subside the longer you have reduced sugar intake. Going into a new dietary style with non-sugar ingredients should help to eliminate this problem and help prevent other issues in your healthy lifestyle.
Poor sleep quality
Sugar withdrawal can cause sleep problems as it can lower your REM sleep rate at night. As you reduce sugar foods, this slowly changes your brain’s functioning and can cause your sleep quality to decline as well.
This is a really big factor in getting through severe cravings as getting enough and quality sleep regulates two hormones that make you feel hungry or full. When you don’t get enough and quality sleep you will have a really hard time abstaining from sugary foods because you’ll feel like you’re constantly hungry.
This is usually enough to end the detox period by giving in to the cravings.
Chronic stress can also contribute to poor sleep as well, and–again–this is definitely the time to keep stress managed as sugar detoxing can be stressful enough on its own.
This means that monitoring your sleep and putting effort into making it really solid during this period is extremely important.
Confusion is a lesser-known of the sugar withdrawal symptoms, but in sugar withdrawal it may be linked to a sudden decrease in sugar in the body. The brain needs fast energy throughout the day because its primary source of energy is glucose.
When the body is deprived of enough of sugar your mind could temporarily experience some feelings of dehydration. This is closely associated with type 2 diabetes and it can be a confusing condition especially when you’re changing your diet for the better.
Fatigue and weakness
Fatigue can often be caused by a couple of physiological conditions. It ‘d be likely your cells haven’t experienced the usual nourishment it used to. Fatigue is a symptom of low blood sugar levels.
When you have a combination of the body and mind switching energy sources from the easiest to process sugars to healthy carbs as lower levels, in addition to overall consumption of nutrients increasing, it can result in a feeling of fatigue and weakness.
This is temporary, as anyone who has shifted to a low-carb or keto lifestyle can tell you that once your body has had that metabolic shift, your energy levels lift to much higher and more steady than they ever were on high-sugar foods.
Having lightheadedness can mean that your blood sugar is low, which should definitely be monitored. This is especially important if you have diabetes, prediabetes, or hypoglycemia. Again, the brain is changing energy sources as well, so it only makes sense that you may have some shifts in that area.
Also, this is where hydration enters the equation again. Staying hydrated can help stave off feelings of lightheadedness as well.
Behavior Changes, Including Mood Swings
As anyone shifting into a new dietary style can tell you, the crazy mood swings will repel your loved ones (and coworkers) like nobody’s business. But this is especially true when you are in sugar withdrawal.
Mental symptoms can include mood changes, sadness, lack of motivation, irritability, and even severe mood swings.
Mood changes involve the decrease in dopamine and GABA levels in your blood. Your body stops releasing dopamine because of low sugar consumption if sugar withdrawal occurs.
This is (again) from your body trying to readjust to a new energy source. This causes blood sugar swings, which can make you feel moody and emotional, unfortunately.
Make sure to have a balanced snack and eat every 2-3 hours during this detox period. But also take some breathing time every day to decompress.
Remind yourself what a fabulous thing you’re doing for your body and mind, thank yourself, and breathe deeply until you’re ready to take on the rest of your day with some semblance of having your -ish together. 🙂
Other Questions about Detoxing From Sugar
How severe your symptoms are depends on how much sugar you ate before you started.
The first thing to understand is that everyone is so completely different, there’s no way to tell how severe symptoms will be until you just do it.
But eating a new sugar-free diet will kick off a plethora of really cool things happening in your body, including your palate changing. Everything you used to eat now feels sweeter and less inviting–unless you have a true addiction to sugar.
And it’s really important to determine this up front so you don’t waste time on sugar detox after sugar detox that always fail.
How long does a sugar detox take?
This really depends on a few things.
- First, if you’ve had really high sugar consumption for a while, it could take longer than others.
- Second, if you have certain genetic factors, you could take a while to detox.
- And third, if you have a combination of all these, it could feel impossible to do it.
In this case, you could have a sugar addiction and need help beyond a sugar detox. It’s what I call sugar deprogramming, but you first need to know your probability of sugar addiction.
How long will sugar withdrawal symptoms last?
The length of sugar withdrawal totally depends on how long you’ve been consuming lots of sugar and refined carbs, as well as how much you’ve consumed regularly.
Some find that the worst are over in a week, but the incessant cravings just won’t quit.
Again– if the cravings are so severe that you keep going back over and over again, do yourself a favor and take the quiz to see your sugar addiction probability score. This will guide you in whether you actually need sugar deprogramming instead of a more basic sugar detox.
What Can you Eat When you have withdrawal symptoms?
It is always very important to stay off sugar when you’re having withdrawal symptoms, but the most helpful foods include eating more protein, including as much fiber as possible from foods like beans and legumes, and healthy fat.
It’s extremely helpful that you don’t reduce your caloric intake when making this shift, because your body will interpret that as a diet, which usually ends with the cravings going into overdrive, as well as exacerbating the headaches and low energy or fatigue.
It is also extremely important to stay really hydrated. Divide your weight (in lbs) by 2, and that will be the minimum number of ounces of water you need every day.
What Can I Eat When Withdrawing from Sugar?
The most important thing is to avoid refined sugar, added sugar, and flours. Some are also sensitive to dairy and other grains like oats, rice, and corn (just to name a few.) Here are a few more specifics:
Know the Names of Sugars
The first thing to know is that food companies are very tricky when it comes to disguising added sugar. The things to look for are the word ‘sugar’ in any form, ‘syrup’, ‘malt’, any word ending in ‘-ose’, and fruit juice or fruit juice concentrates.
It’s a big misconception that naturally occurring sugars are ok and aren’t considered added sugar.
Non Nutritive Sweeteners
Your best bet is to educate yourself on what sugar substitutes can be used to help ‘wean’ you from added sugar intake down to no added sugars. These will also help you to not feel so deprived in the process.
Artificial Sweeteners: Avoid
Artificial sweeteners to avoid are mainly what you would find in the pink, yellow, and blue packets found on tables in restaurants. These are saccharine, aspartame, and acesulfame potassium (or acesulfame-K).
Natural Sweeteners: Use sparingly
The natural sweeteners safe to use during this period are stevia, erythritol, and monk fruit. I recommend using these sparingly because you’re goal is to retrain your palate, brain, and body to not want excessive sweetness in the first place.
Eating protein from a quality source and in higher amounts is really important during this time. Too little protein means you aren’t getting the necessary amino acids that need to be replenished to get back to normalized neurotransmitter and hormone operation in the body and brain.
Eating protein also doesn’t have to mean meat. You can get more protein through cheese, unsweetened greek yogurt, organic soy products, and even some nuts and seeds.
You should be cautious, however, that dairy can be very triggering for some. If you try dairy and find that it triggers you to start craving sugar, this is a warning signal.
More Healthy Fat
Adding a lot more healthy fat may seem counterintuitive because of the higher calorie content. But it’s actually the opposite. Not only does the brain need healthy fat to operate, your body having an increase in calories via nutritious foods will help ward off several of the sugar withdrawal symptoms.
Healthy fats include mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats like olive and avocado oils. But also healthy saturated fats like coconut oil and grass-fed organic butter.
You can also get a combination of healthy fat and fiber in nuts and seeds. Walnuts, pecans, and pumpkin seeds are great options for snacks or add-ons to salads.
Fiber is such a crucial component during this period, because it blunts the effect of carbs on your blood sugar levels and helps you feel full for longer.
If you aren’t going low-carb or keto when cutting sugar, I recommend keeping carbs in the way of beans, legumes, and lentils, as well as tons of vegetables.
It may also be ok to consume fresh fruit in small amounts like fresh berries. Although fresh fruit may ‘seem’ ok, for many it can be one of their sugar triggers because of the amount of fructose it contains.
What Can I Eat After a Sugar Detox to Stay off Sugar?
After you’ve completed a sugar detox, it’s really important to keep up your healthy habits to get to or mianintain a healthy body mass index as well as reduce sugar cravings from now on.
It’s extremely easy to get hooked on sugar again, so staying away from the sweet stuff is priority one.
If you’ve made the changes above to avoid unpleasant symptoms by supporting your body through a healthy sugar-free diet, you should definitely keep on keepin’ on!
Some people, however, find it much easier to abide by a dietary style next because they enjoy the structure.
If you’re able to come off sugar and get past the cravings, a dietary style can be a great framework to help you move on to losing weight or managing conditions you have.
Examples of sugar-free dietary styles
Examples of a low-sugar diet or dietary style include low-carb, keto, Mediterranean diet, and Paleo. Although there are many others, I wholeheartedly recommend an Anti-Inflammatory Dietary style.
This is the next step in my CHEAT Codes to Wellness framework, which you can read more about HERE!
Planning and prepping meals and snacks will also be a crucial tool for helping you stay the course of good nutrition that will minimize cravings and assist you to adopt healthy habits.
What’s My Next Step in Getting off Sugar?
Take this free quiz to determine if a sugar detox is likely to help you or just create more frustration (it all depends on your sugar addiction probability):
Know you’re not addicted to sugar? Head on over to learn how to do a sugar detox HERE.