Sugar Withdrawal: What To Expect - Neuropedia

Sugar Withdrawal: What To Expect

Fact Checked By: Dr. Liora Mor, ND

You may be keenly aware that taking sugar out of your diet is a good idea, but when it comes to removing sweets, something takes over. That something is more than a lack of willpower. It’s sugar’s hold on your brain and body. Sugar withdrawal comes in all shapes and sizes, but it always makes getting off sweets a challenge.

If you’ve been struggling to make big changes in your diet, it’s not just about good intentions but rather having a solid plan of action.

In this article, we’ll discuss why getting off sugar is so difficult, the neurochemistry behind sugar addiction and withdrawal, and some simple steps to help you fight your sugar cravings so you can be done once and for all.

Why Do A Sugar Detox?

Sugar gets a bad rap— and for a good reason. Although natural sugars from fruit can be a part of a healthy diet, most of the sugar consumed in the US comes from processed table sugar. Health experts all seem to agree that the amount of sugar consumed today is far outside of what is appropriate or healthy for humans. In fact, some of the most prevalent diseases and health issues can be traced back to excess sugar consumption.

Here are a handful of the most well-researched and detrimental implications of excessive sugar intake:[1][2][3][4][5]

  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Inflammation
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Depression

And, of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Is sugar inherently toxic? Not at all. The problem is that today most people consume refined sugar (instead of naturally occurring sugars), and they do it in an amount that far surpasses the human body’s requirements or ability to process.

Sugar’s Effect On Your Brain

The problem with sugar is that it doesn’t just harm the tissues in your body, but it directly impacts your brain. Much like heroin or cocaine, sugar creates an addictive response neurologically, which leaves you craving more. For some people, this can create real dependencies that leave them caught in sugar’s tight grasp.

This is due to sugar’s impact on the neurochemicals in your brain, specifically dopamine and endorphins. Dopamine plays a role in your brain’s reward system. This neurotransmitter is released when your brain is expecting a reward, giving you the drive to “achieve” the object of your attention (in this case, sugar).

From an ancestral perspective, this reward system would be the reason hunter-gatherers would trudge out in the depths of winter to find food for their survival. Sugar is the most readily available macronutrient, so it would make sense that humans would be highly attracted to foods high in sugar. For your ancestors, however, there was no concern around obesity or metabolic diseases. In fact, being able to store excess fat would be a benefit in those days.[6]

Unfortunately, this ancient survival mechanism has turned on itself in modern times and is one of the reasons that people become addicted to sugar-laden foods. Everyone has a different neurochemical makeup, but for many people, the sugar cycle creates a rollercoaster of cravings that mimic addictive tendencies seen in alcoholics or drug addicts. Sugar not only becomes a focus of attention, but it often takes more and more of this substance to satisfy your needs.[7]

To add insult to injury, sugar also increases your feel-good neurotransmitters, known as endorphins. These neurotransmitters induce a euphoric feeling, taking the edge of stress and bringing you into a state of calm. Once again, you can liken the experience to the feeling of drugs or alcohol.[8]

This is why so many people find that quitting sugar is an uphill battle. It goes far beyond willpower to put down that cookie; your brain is literally fighting with your best intentions to keep the addiction alive. Sugar withdrawal is a real problem for some people, especially those with a strong sugar addiction. Therefore, quitting the sugar habit takes more than just strong intentions; you need a plan of action.

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Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms

As you try to cut sugar out of your diet, your brain and body will likely fight back. Keeping in mind that sugar is a potentially addictive substance, your cells will not be very happy when you deprive them of their sugar hit.

Sugar withdrawal symptoms may look different for everyone due to the unique way that your body responds to sugar. The way you feel when you cut out sugar depends on your physical makeup, diet, and health history.

With that being said, some of the most common symptoms that come along with trying to get off sugar include:

  • Intense cravings
  • Irritability
  • Low mood (depression)
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

If you’ve been consuming significant amounts of sugar regularly, these symptoms may begin within a day or two of quitting sugar, and they can become quite severe. In many ways, getting off sugar mimics getting off of drugs, and as mentioned, your mind and body will fight back.

Therefore, if you want to remove sugar from your diet successfully you have to arm yourself with a handful of tools to help you break the cycle.

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How To Break A Sugar Addiction

Breaking your sugar addiction is a mind-body process. Physically, you must remove sugar from your diet and replace it with something that will keep cravings at bay. Mentally, you have to prepare yourself for the potential withdrawal symptoms that pop up when sugar is no longer available to provide a dopamine and endorphin hit.

For a successful sugar detox, keep the following suggestions in mind:

Go Cold Turkey

Some people like to play around with the idea of “cutting back” on sugar. While it would be nice just to have one cookie instead of seven, this tactic rarely works. The reason is that once you get that dopamine and endorphin hit, your body naturally starts sending out messages for “more, more, more.”

At first, it may feel like all you can do not to have a sweet treat when cravings start calling, but if you go cold turkey, the cravings will subside within a week (or less), and you’ll be home free. If, however, you keep a little sugar around to placate your cravings, you’ll only be prolonging the inevitable and torturing yourself while you’re at it.

Think of the drug addict that decided to “cut back” on their use — how often does that work?

Any amount of sugar you allow into your diet will keep the roller coaster alive and keep you stuck in the grips of sugar addiction. Cold turkey is really the only way.

Eat The Right Types of Carbs

When you don’t get enough carbs in your diet, your body will signal to you that it needs glucose. Since sugar is the most readily available form of glucose, low carb intake often results in sugar cravings.

Unless you’re trying to follow a ketogenic diet, which eliminates carbs completely, then make sure to get enough high-quality carbs in your diet to reduce sugar cravings. Good sources of carbs include whole foods like rice, quinoa, beans, sweet potato, squash, nuts, and so on.

Consume Protein With Every Meal

Protein is the most satiating macronutrient and will help to keep your blood sugar levels stable. Eating protein with each meal will help to stave off sugar cravings and keep you feeling full and satisfied.

Getting protein in throughout the day is crucial for combating carb cravings. Each meal, plus snacks, should include at least some protein to balance out the meal.[9]

Manage Stress

If you don’t already have stress-management techniques, quitting sugar will be ten times harder. The process of letting go of sugar can be stressful on its own, but for many people, sugar is a go-to comfort when stressful times come up.

Finding a way to self-soothe without food can make breaking a sugar addiction much more doable.

  • Some strategies to try out include:
  • Meditation
  • Breathwork (deep breathing)
  • Exercise
  • Journaling
  • Calling a friend
  • Listening to soothing music, or music that uplifts your spirit
  • Doing something you truly love like a hobby or being in nature

Commit To At Least Three Weeks

Trying to get off the sugar rollercoaster is not easy, but the worst part is the beginning. If you can make it to day three, you’ve crossed the threshold, and things will start getting much easier.

Many people start their sugar detox, and by day two they’re so fed up with the withdrawal symptoms that they lose sight of long-term goals. When you commit to at least three weeks, you’ll find that things get easier and easier with each passing day. At the same time, three weeks isn’t a lifetime and creates a goal that should be doable for most people.

Everyone’s body is different, so exactly how long it takes for your cells to stop screaming for sugar will be unique to you. However, the vast majority of people find that they are much more in control of their relationship with sugar after three weeks.

Check For Hidden Sugars

Finally, if you want to cut your sugar cravings, you must be aware of hidden sources of sugar. The food supply today is laden with hidden sugars in everything from bread to sauces to health food bars.

The only way to truly cut sugar out completely is to check the labels of the food you eat and make sure there is no added sugar. This means looking at both the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient list.


Quitting sugar may seem like an impossible feat, but the truth is that if you know what to expect, you can arm yourself with the tools necessary to succeed.

Sugar detox side effects can be uncomfortable, but what happens when you stop eating sugar is that your body adjusts. Soon you’ll find that your detox headache has subsided, your constant pull for dessert diminishes, and your energy levels pick up as you no longer require sugar to keep you going.

Dopamine and endorphins only call the shots when you let them. By kicking sugar out of your diet, you take control back from your chemical cravings, and you’ll start to feel like yourself again.

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