What Is Sugar Withdrawal?

If you are reducing sugar in your diet, you may experience symptoms of sugar withdrawal while your body adjusts to a lower sugar state.

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that the body can use for quick energy. It is a frequent ingredient in hyper-palatable foods, which are foods considered highly tasty and appealing, and are often eaten in large amounts. They may also contain high levels of fat and salt.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a set of guidelines that promotes healthy, nutritious choices, recommends limiting sugar to 10% or less of your daily calories. Sugar is also associated with some health conditions like obesity and diabetes.

The symptoms of eliminating sugar can vary from person to person, but you may experience cravings, fatigue, irritability, headache, and trouble concentrating for a while. Some people on low-carbohydrate diets like the ketogenic diet (sometimes called keto) may have flu-like symptoms when they stop eating sugar.

This article discusses sugar withdrawal, including the symptoms, risk factors, and how to cope.

Teaspoon of sugar over cup of tea

Sujata Jana / EyeEm / Getty Images

What Is Withdrawal?

Medical withdrawal symptoms have been described for substances other than sugar. The American Psychological Association specifically describes withdrawal as “psychological, behavioral, and cognitive” symptoms that occur when someone stops taking alcohol, cocaine, opioids, or other substances.

Some people report similar withdrawal symptoms when they no longer eat sugar. Sugar withdrawal is not officially a medical diagnosis, but some researchers and healthcare providers are looking into what happens when people stop eating sugar.

Can I Be Addicted to Sugar?

Withdrawal is typically a sign of addiction. Food addiction is a complicated issue. Currently, there is no official way to be diagnosed with food addiction. Researchers are trying to understand if it exists, how to define it, and how to manage the symptoms.

To get a better understanding of food addiction, the medical community is investigating whether the Yale Food Addiction Scale is a good test to measure addiction. It consists of 25 questions to help determine how severely a person might be addicted to food. It is still being researched but has helped to gather data over time.

What is known is that sugar stimulates the reward (pleasure) centers in the brain and has a high potential to trigger overeating of sweets. This is one reason some people think it is possible to have withdrawal symptoms when limiting sugar.

What Causes Sugar Withdrawal?

The exact body mechanism of sugar withdrawal is not fully understood at this time. Sugar has been studied in animals in which reactions to sugar show similarities to addictive drugs. The animals show behaviors of:

  • Craving
  • Binging
  • Tolerance
  • Withdrawal

One hypothesis is that sugar changes both behavior and brain chemistry, which is why cutting down your sugar intake can cause unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

What Are the Symptoms?

People who have chosen to eat less sugar have reported physical and mental changes. Sometimes, these uncomfortable experiences may trigger people to continue eating sweets to avoid feeling bad as the body adjusts to a lower-sugar diet.

Some possible symptoms of cutting back on the amount of sugar you eat include:

  • Headache
  • Decreased concentration
  • Cravings (especially for sweets)
  • Decreased motivation
  • Irritability

Who Is at Risk?

Sugar (and other chemicals) are believed to activate the dopamine reward centers in the brain and cause pleasant feelings. Sugar is also an energy source the body can use easily, so there may be a connection where the brain calls for that kind of food.

Sugar withdrawal risk factors have not been identified at this time. However, a higher risk for food addiction may occur in people with:

How to Cope

The timeline for sugar withdrawal will vary for each person and may depend on the amount and kinds of sugar you have been eating. The symptoms only last a few days to a few weeks for many people.

You may find they are worse the first few days and lessen over time. Eating sugar may reduce your symptoms, but it can also reset the clock on clearing sugar from your body.

Many times, so-called natural forms of sugar, like those found in fruits, may be better tolerated than more processed sugars like granulated white sugar used in cakes and cookies.

If you are trying to eat less sugar, be sure to read labels and watch out for hidden sources of sugar that can be found in any grocery store item, including bread, sauces, salad dressings, and even canned foods.


Sugar withdrawal is an uncomfortable experience for some people who are decreasing or eliminating the sugar in their diet. There can be behavioral and physical changes. However, the changes typically only last a few days to weeks. Be sure to read labels carefully so you don't accidentally eat sugar.

Recommendations continue to encourage eating less sugar. However, cutting back on sugar can cause headaches, irritability, and other side effects. In the long run, these fade, and you may be able to improve your overall health. Work with your healthcare team to develop strategies for getting through the rough patch.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does sugar withdrawal last?

    Each person will have a different experience with sugar withdrawal, and the timeline may vary. Generally, the symptoms are expected to last a few days to a few weeks.

  • Does sugar withdrawal cause headaches?

    You may experience a headache when you cut out sugar. Sugar has physical and behavioral effects similar to addictive drugs, and headaches can be a symptom of withdrawal.

  • What helps with sugar withdrawal?

    Work with your healthcare provider to determine what dietary approach is best for you. Sugar withdrawal can bring physical symptoms and behavioral experiences like cravings, and you might benefit from addressing both. You may find that focusing on a balanced diet, drinking water, getting enough sleep, and exercising are helpful while your body adjusts.

10 Sources
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