Sugar Withdrawal: Signs, Symptoms, and Complications

Research shows that sugar acts on your brain's reward center, which explains why it can feel like such an addictive compound. Many Americans eat more sugar (specifically added sugars found in desserts, snack foods, and sweetened beverages) than is recommended.

When you're used to eating sugar regularly and suddenly stop, you may feel sugar withdrawal symptoms. These may include fatigue and cravings, but some people may experience other symptoms, such as changes in mood and sleep. If you're looking to reduce how much sugar you eat, it's helpful to be aware of potential withdrawal symptoms.

This article discusses some common physical and mental signs and symptoms of sugar withdrawal.

Close-up of someone a woman pushing away a bowl of sugar cubes.

Christoph Hetzmannseder / Getty Images

Frequent Symptoms

Sugar withdrawal symptoms may last anywhere from a few days to several weeks and can vary significantly among people. Withdrawal symptoms may depend on how quickly you reduce your intake and how quickly your body's tolerance adapts to eating less sugar.

Common symptoms of reducing or eliminating sugar can include:

  • Mood changes: Many people feel down or depressed when they stop eating sugar. This is likely because a lack of sugar corresponds to a decrease in the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in the brain's reward system.
  • Difficulty concentrating: Trouble focusing and paying attention can make it hard to concentrate on tasks at school, work, or in everyday life.
  • Irritability: Sugar withdrawal may lead to a low tolerance for people or situations you find annoying (i.e., someone singing loudly or traffic on your way home from work).
  • Intense cravings: Removing sweets or carbohydrate-rich foods all at once can trigger cravings for these specific foods.
  • Feeling anxious: Cutting out sugar too quickly may lead to restlessness and increased anxiety.
  • Nausea: Some people experience digestive symptoms such as nausea when reducing their sugar intake.
  • Headaches: A sudden reduction in sugar intake makes your blood sugar levels drop and headaches to occur.
  • Dizziness or fatigue: If you're used to eating sugar regularly, you may feel dizzy or weak without a steady stream of it.
  • Changes in your sleep pattern: Some people find it difficult to fall asleep as fast or stay asleep when they're experiencing a withdrawal from sugar.

Rare Symptoms

While the symptoms above are common among people avoiding sugar, other, rarer side effects can cause an impact in people giving up sugar who are also on a ketogenic—or a very low carbohydrate—diet.

Giving up too many carbs can put you in a metabolic state called ketosis. It occurs when your body begins to burn fat for energy due to a limited supply of sugar in your blood (glucose). Glucose is your body's primary source of energy. Without it, your body begins to use fat instead of carbohydrates for fuel Some people describe ketosis as feeling like they have the flu.

Ketosis can cause several unpleasant symptoms, such as:

  • Bad breath
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Headache
  • Muscle cramps

However, the rare possibility of ketosis doesn't necessarily mean that following a version of a keto or low-sugar diet isn't for you. It may just mean that your body needs a different approach to reducing glucose and carbohydrate intake that is more sustainable and doesn't have severe side effects . It can be helpful to speak to a registered dietitian knowledgeable about adapting to a keto and low-sugar diet.

Complications

None of the potential side effects of sugar withdrawal are pleasant to experience. For some people, trying to cut out sugar too quickly can have the opposite effect than intended, causing them to binge or overeat more of it.

For instance, if you have intense cravings for sweet or sugary foods and are restricting them, it's not uncommon for these to lead to overconsumption of other foods. This can trigger a bingeing cycle and feelings of guilt, anxiety, and shame. These cycles can be challenging to break on your own.

Over time, the overconsumption of sugary foods can promote unwanted weight gain or obesity, as well as chronic diseases such as heart disease and certain cancers. Too much added sugar can also lead to cavities and dental health problems.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Symptoms of sugar withdrawal that result from reducing your sugar intake are generally not serious and don't last for long. They usually pass quickly and are easily treatable.

However, it's always best to speak with your healthcare provider if you're not feeling well and your side effects continue. Additionally, it's a good idea to seek support if your sugar withdrawal symptoms lead to overeating or a bingeing pattern in response to cravings.

Summary

Most of us are guilty of eating too much sugar, but cutting out sugar all at once can lead to unpleasant sugar withdrawal symptoms. Common symptoms include fatigue, mood changes, irritability, and intense cravings that may lead to overeating. A very low-carb diet can lead to symptoms of ketosis (very low blood sugar levels that cause your body to use fat for energy).

While it's not realistic for everyone to completely cut added sugar out of their diets, it's best to find a healthy balance between the natural sugars (found in fruit) and added sugars you eat to avoid uncomfortable sugar withdrawal symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

Lowering your sugar intake is a positive goal. Remember, though, that your eating pattern doesn't have to match anyone else's. It's important to find what works best for you. Making small changes toward a nutritious diet that's low in added sugar will serve you well over time.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the main symptoms of sugar withdrawal?

    Many who experience sugar withdrawal feel intense cravings for the sweet foods they're avoiding. Others may feel fatigued, irritable, nauseated, or have difficulty concentrating. Disrupted sleep patterns may also result.

  • How long do sugar withdrawal symptoms last?

    Sugar withdrawal symptoms may last a few days to a few weeks. How long your symptoms last depends on the individual and on factors such as how much sugar you were eating before and how quickly you reduced or eliminated it from your diet. Sugar withdrawal symptoms generally go away as the body adapts.

  • What are some ways to cope with sugar withdrawal symptoms?

    To minimize symptoms, it's best to taper off sugar intake over a few weeks. It may help to eat more naturally sweet foods like fresh fruit, berries, and pitted dates. Additionally, when you feel a craving, start an activity like walking, doing a creative project, or calling a friend. These things can help take your mind off of your symptoms and cravings until your body adapts.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD
Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD, is a plant-based dietitian, writer, and speaker who specializes in helping people bring more plants to their plate. She's a highly respected writer in the health and nutrition space and loves talking about the power of diet. Lauren aims to connect people with the information and resources to live their healthiest, fullest life.