So you’re considering cutting sugar from your diet, or maybe you’re already on your way. Either way, you’ve probably heard about some potential side effects of giving sugar the boot, like the dreaded sugar withdrawal.
When cutting back on the sweet stuff, some people may experience some initial negative effects — one of which is the potential “sugar detox” headache. Why does this happen? It’s likely because cutting sugar stresses your brain a bit. Let’s take a closer look.
Effects of Sugar on the Brain
When you eat sugar, your brain releases dopamine, the “feel-good” brain chemical. Your body associates it with a reward. “Logically, you may know that sugar is bad and can lead to adverse effects,” says Michele Promaulayko, author of Sugar Free 3. “But your reward center drives you to just keep eating,”
When you cut back on added sugar, or eliminate it from your diet completely, your body has to adjust to not getting regular hits of dopamine from that particular source. Meanwhile, levels of acetylcholine — a neurotransmitter that causes neurons to fire — rise. This can cause some distress to the nervous system, leading to aches and pains in the body and sugar withdrawal symptoms.
These symptoms may include:
Why You Get Sugar Withdrawal Headaches
A headache is perhaps the most common symptom people report when they cut out sugar or caffeine. Researchers aren’t 100 percent positive why headaches occur as a sugar withdrawal symptom, but they theorize it could be due, at least in part, to the brain’s stress system.
In a study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers fed two groups of mice different diets — one consistently low in sugar, and one high in sugar (chocolate-flavored) on certain days.
They found that the mice on the cycled chocolate-flavored sugary diet exhibited some withdrawal-like responses when they didn’t have access to the sweet stuff. Their level of corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) — a hormone in the part of the brain that controls fear, anxiety, and stress responses — was raised.
It was five times higher than the control group, and only stabilized when the mice were fed chocolate-flavored sugary feed.
How Long Does Sugar Withdrawal Last?
Don’t let any of this deter you from reducing or eliminating added sugar from your diet. According to the Cleveland Clinic, you can break your sugar habit in just 10 days. And chances are, if you’re like most of us, you eat way too much anyway.
The average American consumes 17 teaspoons (about 71 g) of sugar a day, which means 270 calories from added sugars every…single…day.
That’s way over the American Heart Association’s recommendation that men have no more than 9 teaspoons (36 g) and women no more than 6 teaspoons (24 g) per day.
It’s not entirely our fault. Food manufacturers sneak added sugar into products we’d never expect, including breads, tomato sauce, salad dressings, and some low-fat foods. (When fat is removed, it has to be replaced with something, and that something else is usually sugar.)
Limiting your intake of added sugars — along with maintaining a healthy weight and adopting a healthier lifestyle — can have a range of positive effects, including maintaining steadier energy levels.
Don’t let the potential of a temporary headache dissuade you from making changes that can improve your overall health for a lifetime.