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Can You Really Experience Sugar Withdrawals?

Published: 13th May 2018. Last updated: 21th July 2019.

Shaun Ward MSc ANutr

Staff Writer


Introduction

The concept of “sugar withdrawal” has been around for decades and is at the core of many popular diet books and programs.

There is often mention that refined added sugars are as addicting as cocaine, nicotine, alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.

Such a claim might seem extreme on the surface, but considering the large extraction process of sugar from sugar cane - involving crushing, draining, boiling, shaking – it ends with a pure crystalized substance that replicates many other heavy drugs.

Such a concept would explain the continuing rise of sugar consumption around the world, now making its way into every modern society in the world across a variety of cultures [1].

What Does Common Sense Tell Us?

There are also millions of cases of people describing symptoms of withdrawal when they restrict themselves from sugary foods and drinks. Such symptoms include food craving, relapse, and impulsive eating, which inevitably contribute to the current obesity crisis.

Many people even claim that they feel compelled to eat sweet foods, despite the fact that dietary sugar is not an essential requirement for human health.

From an evolutionary perspective, this may be explained by the fact that humans are inherently drawn to calorically-dense food that may increase our chances of survival. This likely evolved the body to develop neural systems that encouraged the motivation to seek that given food – in this case sugar.

Unfortunately, in today’s society this evolutionary trait does not pair well with the abundant availability of food at all times, thus contributing to weight gain and eating disorders.

Does The Science Say That Sugar Is Addicting?

The exact definition of addiction has not been universally agreed upon, but it is generally termed that addiction implies a psychological dependence of a substance.

These substances tend to be those that provide intense sensory pleasures.

Although sugar may do so to a lesser extent, it technically provides similar effects in the brain compared to other addictive drugs, with a big influence on altering mood, possibly through its ability to induce reward and pleasure.

This unnatural reward from consuming sugar is able to override many self-control mechanisms in susceptible individuals and thus predispose them to sugar addiction [2].

This reward circuit with sugar, and similarly with other drugs, is revolved around the production of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that is heavily associated with addictive behavior.

When a certain behavior or ingestion causes an excess release of dopamine, this leads to a pleasurable “high” that people are inclined to want to experience again.

For the most part, this confirms sugars addictive qualities as the most well-known characteristic of addictive drugs is their ability to cause repeated, intermittent increases in extracellular dopamine in the hypothalamus region of the brain [3].

More to this, as the ingestion of that given food will over time lead to a relatively lower dopamine response, a larger dose of sugar is needed to feel the same “high”. This commonly leads to increased quantities or frequencies of ingestion - known as substance abuse [4].

Interestingly, the same dopamine response with cocaine administration has been observed in the striatum that occurs with sugar consumption [5].

Based on the evidence, it confirms that sugar causes neurochemical adaptations that constitute a mild, but well-defined, dependency and addiction [6].

Is Sugar Withdrawal Real?

Many people might argue that for a drug to be truly considered addictive, it must be able to induce a withdrawal response.

Sugar successfully ticks all the required boxes needed to be defined as causing withdrawal:

  • Frequent Cravings: In animal studies, abstaining from sugar for a period of days to weeks causes a ~25% increased sugar consumption once it is reintroduced into the diet [7] [8]. Other studies reveal similar results and define such behavior as a sugar “binge” [9]. This is mainly caused by “dopamine deficiency” in the brain due to down-regulation of the dopamine receptors and a reduction in binding of dopamine to those receptors [10]. In addition, it is partially due to the opioid modifications since sugar withdrawal precipitates opiate-like withdrawal signs [11].
  • Anxiety and Behavioral Depression: After a month of sugar abstinence, animal studies show opiate-like “withdrawal” indicated by signs of anxiety and behavioral depression [12] [13]. In fact, the lack of dopamine in the brain during periods between sugar consumption has been suggested to lead to aggressive behavior [14] and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms such as hyperactivity, distraction, and decreased performance [15].
  • Increased Sensitization: There are clear signs of both locomotor and consummatory “cross-sensitization” from sugar abuse [16]. In other words, refraining from sugar causes an elevated physical and mental response to it once it is re-ingested.

Signs of Sugar Addiction

It is common for people to unknowingly suffer from health issues that are underpinned by sugar addiction and/or withdrawal. Some common signs are:

  • Constant craving for products high in sugar
  • Consuming foods despite not being hungry
  • A lack of energy and general fatigue
  • Other health problems such as high triglycerides, cholesterol, blood pressure etc
  • Looking to food for emotional stability

How To Beat Sugar Addiction and Withdrawal?

There are 2 very simple steps that need to be taken to beat sugar addiction:

  • Stop consuming sugar (especially refined added sugars)
  • Give it time

The problem when trying to overcome sugar addiction is, as mentioned, the withdrawal phase that is inevitable and unavoidable.

Depending on the severity of the addiction, the amount of time it takes to stop sugar cravings will vary from between 1 week to 1 month.

Common withdrawal symptoms during this period are cravings, anxiety, mild depression, headaches, and nausea.

However, trust the process and eventually these issues will fade and long-term health will improve as a reward.

For those really struggling with staying off sugar, try and take advantage of sweet products with a low sugar content to replicate that same taste – diet sodas, strawberries, or a dash of lemon juice in water.

Conclusion

Sugar withdrawal describes the period when refraining from sugar consumption which typically leads to sugar cravings and psychological issues.

This concept has been proven correct, as the dopamine response from sugar intake is extremely addictive and able to override many self-control mechanisms.

Such withdrawal can lead to similar psychological effects as seen with powerful psychostimulants and opiates, albeit smaller in magnitude.

As always, it is advised to refrain from foods that contain added sugar to minimize the chances of sugar withdrawal.

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