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How to deal with sugar withdrawals

A lady sitting on her sofa with both hands on her head, seeming in pain.
So, you have decided to take the plunge and give up sugar, or else reduce your intake by, let’s face it, a lot! 

This is definitely beneficial to your mind and body overall, but did you know that, just as too much sugar in the diet can damage the gut1 , sugar withdrawals can themselves also be difficult to deal with? Weaning off sugar is not always as straightforward as it sounds and sugar withdrawal headaches are, for example, just one of the side effects of sugar withdrawal. 

So what is a typical sugar withdrawal timeline? What are side effects of quitting sugar? And how can you ride them out, in order to lead a healthier lifestyle with a more balanced diet? We take a closer look.

Cutting down on sugar 

When making a diet or lifestyle change such as cutting down on sugar, it is important to make sure you know which type of sugar to cut, and which to keep, in order to maintain a healthy balance.

“Free sugars” are the ones to remove from your diet.2 These are most often found in fruit juices, fizzy drinks, and of course cakes, biscuits and chocolates. But they also lurk in seemingly “healthy” looking foods such as fruit smoothies, fruit juices, or honey or syrup added to yogurt or cereal. A little of these “free sugars” are not necessarily bad for you, but it is very easy to wind up with a sugar overload.

How much sugar should I consume each day? 

The NHS recommended daily amount of sugar in an adult’s diet is no more than 30g per day, or about seven cubes of sugar.3 (There can be as many as nine cubes of sugar in just one can of fizzy drink!) 

It is important to note than many foods contain sugars which are naturally occurring, but which do not count as free sugars. For example, the sugar found in milk, fruit and vegetables does not count, even though you will see this included in the “total sugar” figure found on packaging labels.

Sugar withdrawal symptoms

Everybody reacts differently to changing their sugar intake. The signs of sugar withdrawal and any symptoms you experience, as well as how strongly you experience them, will be partly due to the amount of sugar included in your diet before reducing your sugar intake.

When it comes to the human body, there is no one size fits all answer! And it might even be that symptoms which you might think are a result of cutting out sugar might be due to something else entirely. It is always a good move to consult with a doctor if you are finding your symptoms last for a long time, or are very severe.

Common symptoms arising from sugar withdrawal include very intense cravings for sweet food (no surprises there) as well as intense cravings for other carbohydrates, such as pasta or toast. The latter actually is surprising. This is because of the sugar content of starchy carbs. When we are craving sugar, we instinctively go towards foods which we know will satisfy our need for energy, in part due to the sugar content of those foods.

Other symptoms you might find result in the first few weeks from your sugar decrease include:
  • irritability 
  •  feeling depressed 
  •  muscle aches 
  •  tiredness 
  •  mood swings4

How to best cope with sugar withdrawal 

It is not unusual to binge eat your way out of a sugar low. But this will result in a spike in sugar levels, and is likely to fuel feelings of anger and frustration that you haven not been able to stick to quitting sugar cold turkey.

Regular exercise 

But how to deal with those intense cravings? One way to avoid discomfort is to beef up your exercise regime. Exercising regularly releases endorphins, which make you feel good, and also helps to regulate your blood sugar levels.

Drink lots of water 

Make sure you drink enough water, too. Dehydration can cause headaches (so it might even be this that you are feeling, rather than sugar withdrawal), but if you do experience headaches from cutting down on sugar, dehydration will likely make them even worse. 

Putting the right foods in your body, in the right quantities, and committing to a regular exercise regime will relax those aches and leave you feeling happier and more energised in the long term. 

Try low sugar or sugar free alternatives

If you are accustomed to sugary drinks, try the low in sugar teas available from Pukka. The liquorice and fennel flavours are particularly good for those sugary cravings. 

In the short term, an old wives’ trick for dealing with sugary cravings is to eat something bitter. Radishes are a particular favourite: their peppery, crunchy kick gives a flavoursome distraction, as well as providing some of the healthy energy that your body is really asking for.
Want to learn more? You might be interested in our articles: How to beat sugar cravings, "9 healthy sugar alternatives & worst types” and “How to give up sugar.

Last Updated: 1st February 2021

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