Sugar Addiction: Causes, Dangers, and Withdrawal Symptoms

Last Updated: January 20, 2021

Authored by Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

How real is sugar addiction? There have been numerous narratives on the dynamics of its intake and how it affects the system. Sugar is everywhere in almost all of the food people eat, in one form or the other. It’s in all the expected foods, but one might not realize it’s also in much other food where one would not expect it. Our daily intake of sugar averages 95 grams, which might not sound like a lot, but that adds up to about 77 pounds per year. The American heart association recommends reducing its intake to, at most, half of one’s daily calorie consumption. For most individuals in the United States, this is about 150 calories for men and 100 calories for women, or in another unit, 9 teaspoons daily for males and 6 teaspoons for females. With the intake level currently, a lot of people are already way over the limit. As a result, obesity has become a major issue, with 1 in 3 adults and 2 in 5 kids showing various degrees.

Is Sugar Addictive?

Yes, sugar can be as addictive as drugs and alcohol and is very difficult to avoid due to its presence and addition to many food items. Consuming, or even just thinking about it, can stimulate the brain and release dopamine into the system.

Sugar not only tastes good but is also potentially addictive. Consuming or even thinking about caramel can trigger a dopamine release, a neurotransmitter that controls pleasure and reward-motivated behavior, into the system. Studies have shown that this substance can be as addictive as drugs and alcohol. However, it is more difficult to avoid caramel as there are thousands of packaged food items in grocery stores today, with about 80 percent of them containing added sugars.

Various soda cans.

Sugar Addiction Causes

Sugar addiction often sets off a chain reaction of cravings to anything with a high concentration of sugar. How do people develop an addiction to sugar? It starts with a fatigued individual needing a source of energy or a carb-rich meal or drinks in many cases. What happens instantaneously after ingesting the carb-stocked food is that the sugar content of the meal releases chemicals called endorphins inside the body, which reacts with other components to boost the individual’s energy. Upon realizing the effectiveness of a carb diet or beverage in supplying substantial energy, a person may unconsciously begin to abuse sugar or become involuntarily dependent on caramel for emotional balance, as a cure for irritability, energy, motivation, and other conditions. Over time, the individual loses control over their intake, leading to a fully developed addiction.

Dangers of Added Sugar

The sucrose composition in diet, beverages, and other consumables can either be natural or added. Naturally occurring sugars may be found in food in their natural state, such as glucose and fructose in fruits and lactose in milk.

Added Sugars are Those that are Used During Food Processing to Improve the Taste of the Food, such as:

  • corn syrup
  • sucrose
  • dextrose
  • maltose
  • brown sugar

How Widespread is Added Sugar Consumption?

The consumption of sucrose at a very high rate spans across race, ethnicity, age, and sex. From 2005 to 2010, the average daily calorie in percentage was 13% for both genders. Reports also showed that from 2003 to 2010, Americans within the age of 6 and above consumed at least 14% of added sugar of the total daily calorie.

The Majority of its Intake Comes From:

  • fruit drinks
  • coffee
  • alcoholic drinks
  • energy drinks
  • teas
  • snacks
  • cookies
  • brownies
  • doughnuts
  • salad dressing
  • bread
  • ice cream
  • etc.

The prevalence of high-level intake is widespread. A survey showed that at least 95% of cereals, sugar-beverages, corn syrup, cane sugar, granola bars contained high-calorie sweeteners.

The world health organization (WHO) proposed reducing its daily use by a little lower than 5% of calorie intake, which is approximately 6 teaspoons. The WHO also warned that sugar abuse had dire consequences such as the risk of heart diseases, type 2 diabetes, weight gain, and obesity.

Sugar Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders

The obvious sign of sugar addiction is usually behavioral. The compulsion to consume large amounts of high-sugar drinks, beverages, or food is a clear sign of sugar addiction. The individual in question may adopt the indulgence in excess sugar to deal with life problems and experiences. Such a person often repeatedly talks about cravings for either physical or emotional stability. The peculiarity of sugar addiction is that it often presents with co-occurring disorders.

Sugar Addiction and Binge Eating

Binge eating is a problem that is very common among people who are addicted to sugar. Binge eating means consuming a lot of food or snacks in a very short period of time. This is often followed by a feeling of shame, disgust, and dissatisfaction in one’s self. Some individuals first develop an emotional imbalance, and due to depression, they binge eat until they become addicted to sugar. This can happen in reverse.

Woman Feeling Sick While Eating Huge Meal.

Sugar Addiction and Alcoholism

The consumption of this substance often leads to the stimulation of dopamine receptors in the brain, which is similar to what happens when one abuses alcohol. Alcoholics often have a craving or sugar withdrawal. The sugar preference genes may be passed down to offspring who may be predisposed to any or both compulsions, depending on their lifestyle.

Sugar Addiction and Emotional Eating

Emotional eating and sugar addiction has been known to go hand-in-hand following a stressful day, handling social and emotional pressures, as well as dealing with life’s situations. People enduring emotional stress such as bullying, breakup, and other similar issues or dealing with a damaged reputation, and low self-esteem may result in comfort food such as chocolate, ice cream, candy, and others to deal with their problems.

Addiction to caramel can also accompany compulsive gambling or addiction to video games, when one mixes uncontrolled eating with prolonged playing games or slots.

Sugar Addiction and Anxiety

Anxiety is a mental condition that is characterized by unrest and can affect every aspect of a person’s body. Anxiety can cause irregularities in appetite. Some people develop eating disorders like anorexia, while some may start to binge eat, leading to sugar addiction and other secondary health issues.

Why does this happen? The stress-related hormone cortisol is released when a person develops anxiety. This hormonal change works differently in people. For some, it leads to a complete lack of appetite, while for others, it boosts their appetite for sugar-based meals and snacks. This inadvertently leads to excess weight gain and worsens anxiety as depletion in sugar levels immediately leads to depression and fatigue.

Sugar Withdrawal And Detox Symptoms

When people quit this substance, physiological changes occur. Within hours the hormonal levels change. The levels of insulin will start to decrease, allowing the body to access stored fats to burn for energy. After a few days, lipid levels start to drop, especially triglycerides. Over a prolonged period, palate changes, and things that used to taste normal later taste unpleasantly sweet, and palate adjust to require a lot less of it to feel satisfied. These are some of the benefits one will experience after quitting this substance but not before going through a withdrawal phase.

What are the Symptoms of Sugar Withdrawal?

The following withdrawal symptoms of sugar addiction may manifest as early as 24 hours after quitting sugar intake:

  • Cravings
  • Lethargy or lack of energy
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pain
  • Insomnia
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Gas and bloating

Overcoming sugar addiction comes with its withdrawal and detox symptoms, which a person needs to be aware of, as well as knowing when to expect them and how to manage them. When one removes this substance from the diet, the detox is not necessarily the biggest issue, but the idea that it has a drug-like effect on the body. It is a stimulant, and when taken it away, the body has to adjust and adapt accordingly.

These are some of the withdrawal symptoms one can almost definitely expect when detoxing from sucrose.

Cravings

This happens immediately after one goes cold turkey. One will definitely crave sugar as it has silently become a drug of choice. One will crave it and think about it all the time. This is the first sign that the body is dependent on it because as soon as a person removes it from the diet, the body is asking for it back immediately. This is an indication of a major imbalance in the system, which should spur one to stay on course.

young woman in pink holding a drinking cup.

Lethargy

A complete lack of energy follows shortly after as a result of the absence of the primary energy source. As early as 24 hours after ceasing its intake, a person starts to feel this lethargy. One feels like being about to get sick, the body feels heavy, the mind feels dull, and one feels a bit listless and emotionless. A person might even feel a little depressed, depending on how dependent the body was on sucrose. There will be some disturbance in mood and probably some issues with thinking clearly and communicating. One needs to stay strong and ride this wave out in the course of detox.

Anxiety

Caramel gives us a temporary boost of energy, and it is similar to a high that makes us happy in the short term. Taking away this source makes our brains react in ways that can manifest as anxiety. According to a 2002 study at Princeton University, this anxiety was observed in rats that were subjects of sweetener dependence and withdrawal. Anxiety was manifested in behaviors such as teeth chattering, paw tremors, and head shaking.

Headaches

Perhaps the most common side effect of quitting sweeteners is the sugar withdrawal headache. It is often recommended to consume small amounts of this substance to relieve the headaches, preferably from fruits. If the headaches are severe, then perhaps quitting cold turkey is not the right choice, and one should try a more gradual approach.

Other General Symptoms that May Arise from Quitting are:

  • Muscle pain and aches
  • Insomnia
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Gas and bloating

Sugar Withdrawal and Diabetes

Sugar addiction and binging can lead to a range of health conditions, including diabetes. It is also possible that diabetes is what caused addiction to it, and for that reason, one needs to restore balance. Regardless of the situation, as with any addiction, it is safer to gradually reduce the dosage. This is the same with sweeteners. A drastic reduction can enhance withdrawal symptoms and sometimes even be the trigger for diabetes.

This substance can be just as addictive and as problematic to withdraw from as any drug. In a world surrounded by advertising for sugar-based products, it can be difficult to recognize what is the right amount for our bodies and what is too much. This substance is not only addictive but pleasurable to eat, so quitting even temporarily will not be easy.

When attempting withdrawal, a person should always ensure that one does not have to manage the entire process alone, as suffering withdrawal symptoms, just like those of more infamous drugs, is not pleasant at all. Support from family, friends, and a doctor will all be important for a successful withdrawal and a life with a more balanced level of its intake. There will be headaches, pains, mood swings, maybe even shakes, but in the end, one will feel the benefits of a better diet.

What Happens After One Quits Sugar?

Within hours after stopping sugar consumption, a body’s hormone levels will change. The insulin levels will start to decrease and allow the body to burn stored fats for energy. After a few days, lipid and triglyceride levels will drop, and taste buds will crave less sucrose to feel satisfied. However, one may suffer from many of the side effects listed above. Since the addiction is more mental than physical, it is not out of place to ask, is sugar a drug? Those who are addicted to sugar may suffer health problems, but it is not a controlled substance and does not alter cognitive abilities; hence, it cannot be referred to as a drug.

There are cases where individuals who realize that they have a sweetener problem seek counseling on how to stop eating sugar. The following are simple techniques on how to stop eating sugar.

Don’t Quit It Cold Turkey

The human body relies on many elements of food and drinks to run efficiently; sucrose is one of those elements. This is the reason many health professionals do not recommend that a person cuts it completely out of the diet when attempting to detox. Instead, they recommend that one reduces sugars to a more refined amount, possibly just eating a little fruit after a meal, for example.

Gradual Elimination

Most people who are addicted to sugar find that the best and most effective way to detox is gradually cutting back. This way, withdrawal symptoms are far less noticeable, and a person is more likely to keep that positive feeling of doing something that is good for their health. This makes it less likely that one will give up the detox completely.

When it comes to methods of cutting back, there are a few ways of approaching the detox. One method is only withdrawing for one day a week and gradually increasing that by a measure of time every week until one reaches an ideal level of caramel consumption. An alternative method is to add water to drinks. This way, there is a reduction in the amount of sweetener with every drink. One can gradually reduce it more and more, eventually replacing sugary drinks altogether with a healthier option.

Complete Elimination

Cutting sucrose completely out of the diet would not only enhance withdrawal symptoms, but it would also be incredibly unhealthy in the long run. Furthermore, the idea of not having caramel at all can be detrimental to mentality while attempting to detox.

Dealing With Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms

A person will go through cravings, irritability, fatigue, and mood swings, to name just a few things. But what is the best way to deal with sugar withdrawal and its symptoms?

One suggestion is a dietary supplement known as glutamine. Glutamine helps to combat sugar withdrawal symptoms by providing the body with a replacement for it, getting energy from an alternative base. Another suggestion commonly made is to drink lots of water. This will help to stay hydrated and combat some of the cravings. Since cravings are mostly driven by the brain’s need for some form of reward which is harmful to the body, the best options are usually to tackle the problem with physical and mental techniques. Some ways of dealing with sugar withdrawal are:

Going for a Run or Walk

Exercises are known to release chemicals called endorphins, also known as “feel good” hormones in the brain. This is instrumental in switching off the craving. In cases where one cannot go out for a walk, indoor workouts such as push-ups, squats, and others may suffice.

Eat Healthily

Most sweetener addicts eat, not because they are hungry, but because of an addiction to the sucrose content- the brain signaling for a reward through the release of dopamine. Cravings are often difficult to resist; however, a great way to overcome sugar withdrawal symptoms is to eat a healthy premade diet and have a good stock of healthy sugar-free snacks. Eating regular food may not seem as appetizing, but the feeling of fullness may help curb the habit of extra sugary nibbles.

A Hot Bath

People who used this method found it to be quite effective. The mechanism behind hot showers and cravings is yet uncertain, but anecdotal reports have consistently suggested that a 5 to 10 minutes hot shower may be all you need when you are experiencing sugar withdrawal symptoms.

As much as these methods are effective for sugar withdrawal symptoms, prevention is always better than a cure. Keeping up a healthy eating habit and exercising often has been found to be the most effective.

Other Ways to Tackle Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms are:

  • Eat lots of protein
  • Eat plenty of fruits
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners
  • Always stay hydrated
  • Get lots of sleep
  • Avoid going long hours without eating
  • Stay away from triggers

Generally, the best way to combat sugar withdrawal symptoms seems to be to keep the blood sugar levels stable. Replacements for it, such as almond butter or coconut oil, will ensure that one does not suffer a sudden crash in blood sugar levels if one takes a dosage of them every few hours. Alongside the almond butter, a person should maintain a good sleeping and eating pattern. It is also recommended that one does not totally abstain from fruit. Despite its content of natural sugars, the fruit is a vital dietary requirement, and therefore it should still be eaten in moderation. This will help the body to re-adjust to a usual diet and meaning the detox is done as soon as possible in the best possible quality.

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Page Sources

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Published on: July 11th, 2016

Updated on: January 20th, 2021

About Author

Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Dr. Ahmed Zayed is a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery. He is graduated from the University of Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Ahmed Zayed has a passion for writing medical and health care articles and focuses on providing engaging and trustworthy information to readers.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.