Congratulations for making the decision to better your health by cutting your sugar intake! Sugar detox isn’t easy, and the symptoms of sugar withdrawal aren’t either. But the benefits are worth it given the proven negative effects of sugar on your body.
Sugar has been linked to an increased risk of a number of medical conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Sugar also zaps your energy, increases your risk of depression, and contributes to poor dental health — just to name a few.
By cutting sugar, you can reduce your health risks and may feel better than you knew was possible. But first, you may experience some bumps in the road.
A number of studies have found that sugar affects the brain the same way that addictive substances such as nicotine, cocaine, and morphine do. With the average American consuming 22 to 30 teaspoons a day — considerably more than the recommended maximum of 6 teaspoons — some withdrawal symptoms are to be expected.
Our brains have a reward system that helps us survive as a species. Food is a natural reward, and consuming something sweet stimulates our brain’s reward system.
Though experts are still divided on whether sugar addiction is a real thing, animal and human studies have found that sugar triggers the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens — the same area of the brain implicated in response to heroin and cocaine.
Eating sugar regularly changes your brain so that it becomes tolerant to the sugar, causing you to require more to get the same effect.
Sugar has also been shown to cause the release of endogenous opioids in the brain, which leads to a rush similar to that experienced when a person injects heroin. All of this leads to a vicious cycle of cravings and needing more sugar to feel good.
When you cut out sugar, your cravings get more intense and you experience withdrawal symptoms — at least at first.
Sugar detox can cause unpleasant physical and mental symptoms. How the body reacts to quitting sugar is different for everyone. Which symptoms you experience and the severity of these symptoms depend on how much sugar you were consuming.
Withdrawal symptoms can last from a few days to two weeks. The longer your body goes without sugar, the less intense your symptoms and cravings for sugar will be.
You may find that your symptoms are worse at certain times of the day, such as between meals. Stress is also known to trigger cravings for sugar, so you may find your symptoms seem worse during times of stress.
Sugar detox can cause a number of emotional and mental symptoms. These include:
- Depression. Feeling down is a common sugar withdrawal symptom. Along with low mood, you may also notice a lack of enjoyment in things you once found pleasurable.
- Anxiety. Feelings of anxiousness may also be accompanied by nervousness, restlessness, and irritability. You may feel like you have less patience than usual and are on edge.
- Changes in sleep patterns. Some people experience changes in their sleep when detoxing from sugar. You might find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep through the night.
- Cognitive issues. You may find it difficult to concentrate when you quit sugar. This can cause you to forget things and make it hard to focus on tasks, such as work or school.
- Cravings. Along with craving sugar, you may find yourself craving other foods, such as carbohydrates like bread, pasta, and potato chips.
Headache is one of the most common side effects of sugar detox, along with feeling physically rundown. Other possible physical withdrawal symptoms include:
- light-headedness and dizziness
Giving up sugar can make you feel lousy, but rest assured, it will get better if you stick to your sugar detox. According to the Cleveland Clinic, you can break your sugar addiction in 10 days.
Here are some tips to help you beat the side effects and avoid or at least limit some of the symptoms of sugar detox.
Quit cold turkey
Cutting sugar from your diet gradually may help lessen the intensity of your symptoms, but it also means those symptoms will stick around longer. By cutting out sugar at once, your body will become used to living without it sooner, which means a faster end to withdrawal symptoms. Do this by cutting out all forms of sugar, including those in prepackaged foods, sweetened beverages, and white flour.
Eat more protein
Add protein to every meal to help you avoid hunger and low energy levels during your sugar detox. This will help you avoid the temptation to reach for a candy bar or other sugar-laden quick fix. Eat fish, poultry, and lean cuts of meat. High-protein vegetables, nuts, and seeds make great snacks.
Increase your dietary fiber
Eating high-fiber foods can help you stave off hunger. Because this helps control blood sugar, it may also help you avoid sugar detox side effects like headache and nausea while keeping cravings at bay. Aim for high-fiber vegetables, beans, and legumes.
Drink more water
Staying hydrated will help you feel better overall and can help keep you regular. This is especially important when you increase your fiber intake, which could cause constipation. Fiber-rich foods and adequate water intake are needed to help keep stools soft and move them through the digestive system.
In addition, thirst is often confused with hunger. Having a glass of water may help you resist the urge to overeat and keep your cravings under control.
Avoid artificial sweeteners
Swapping out sugar for artificial sweeteners may seem like a good idea when you’re breaking up with sugar, but it can actually derail your efforts. Research shows that artificial sweeteners encourage sugar cravings and dependence. Staying away from sweet foods — even those that are sugar-free — is the best way to cut sugar from your diet once and for all.
Manage your stress
There’s evidence that stress affects food preferences and increases cravings for sweets. Sugar also appears to have a calming effect on stress hormones, which contributes to your desire for sugar when feeling stressed.
Keeping your stress in check will make it easier to cut sugar from your diet and help keep cravings under control. Taking a walk, talking to a friend, or just reading a book are just a few simple ways to relieve stress.
Exercise is beneficial in several ways when doing a sugar detox. Exercise increases energy and reduces stress, which can help combat withdrawal symptoms like fatigue, low energy levels, and stress-induced cravings.
A 2015 study also found that short bouts of exercise, such as a brisk 15-minute walk, reduced cravings for sugary foods. Remember to start off slowly and speak to your doctor before you start exercising.
Drink some greens
Sipping on a drink of greens can help reduce sugar cravings, according to a 2014 study. The 3-month study, which involved 38 women, found that those who were given a drink containing 5 grams of spinach extract before breakfast each morning experienced a decrease in cravings for sweet and fat foods, from day one.
You can make your own spinach drink using commercially available spinach extract or powder or take spinach extract in capsule form. Look for products that haven’t been flavored with sugar or artificial sweeteners, such as:
- Koyah Organic Whole Leaf Spinach Powder
- Hawaii Pharm Non-Alcohol Spinach Liquid Extract
- Terra Vita Spinach Extract 4:1 Capsules
Get enough sleep
Insufficient sleep can worsen symptoms of sugar detox, such as fatigue, cravings, and depression. Not getting enough sleep has been shown to increase cravings for sugar and other unhealthy “comfort foods.”
Getting a good night’s sleep has been linked to:
- better food choices
- lowered stress
- higher energy levels
- improved concentration and memory
Some tips for better sleep: Avoid daytime napping and aim for the same bedtime every night.
Eat something bitter
Eating bitter foods shuts down the receptors in the brain that drive us to wanting and eating sugar, according to research. Bitter food also slows the absorption of sugar and helps regulate blood sugar levels, which can help you avoid many of the side effects of sugar detox.
You can make your own bitters or choose bitter foods, such as coffee, arugula, or broccoli raab (rapini).
Saying goodbye to sugar is no easy feat, so don’t beat yourself up if you slip up. Write down your motivators for giving up sugar to help keep your eye on the prize when you feel yourself slipping.
If you do give in to temptation, just start again. Use any slipups as a learning experience to help you avoid falling into the same trap the next time. For instance, if you find temptation is worse during certain times of the day, schedule activities to keep yourself busy during that time or be prepared with high-protein snacks and water to help get you through.
With some preparation and a little patience, you can make it through a sugar detox without severe symptoms and come out feeling better than ever.
Remember that any symptoms you may experience are only temporary. The benefits you gain from cutting back on sugar are more than worth it.
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