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The Unexpected Effects of Sugar Withdrawal

This ubiquitous substance has made its way into all manner of food items, from the obvious offenders like chocolate and ice cream to the products branded as “health foods”, such as muesli bars, yoghurt and breakfast cereals. Sugar is dangerously commonplace and, for those who have kicked their sugar habit to the curb, it can be difficult to navigate the challenges of their diet change. Even more difficult when we consider the withdrawal effects that come into play soon after ditching the sweet stuff.

Research has shown sugar triggers our brain’s reward system, even proving to evoke a stronger reward response than cocaine. It works by causing the release of dopamine, the “feel-good” hormone, into the brain and so begins the reward-seeking cycle.

There are many reasons to go sugar-free, from improved cardiovascular health – with a study showing a massive reduction in cardiovascular-related deaths after decreasing sugar intake – to greater mental wellbeing and physical mobility. But many who choose to cut sugar out struggle with symptoms of withdrawal. Find out what these symptoms are and how they affect the body.


Headaches are one of the most widespread afflictions that many brush off as something insignificant. But for nearly 1 in 5 in Australia, chronic pain from this symptom is devastating to their physical and mental health, with many reporting it interferes with their work and social lives. Nearly 7 million Australians reportedly suffer from tension headaches and 5 million have chronic migraines.

But for those who’ve noticed more frequent headaches since quitting sugar, it could be a sign of withdrawal symptoms. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. It takes a while for the body to adjust to the absence of sugar, but somewhere between a few days and a few weeks is the general timeline for symptoms to subside.

Irritability and anxiety.

If you’ve recently quit sugar, you’re probably feeling on-edge and cranky. This is normal. Sugar – and the withdrawal from sugar – tends to cause higher levels of cortisol to be released. The result? More stress, anxiety and feelings of panic.

Symptoms like a racing heart, fight-or-flight feelings and a dry mouth are often disconcerting and unsettling, but if this sounds like your sugar-free experience, you’re certainly not alone. Keep going, because while withdrawal symptoms will subside eventually, continued consumption of excess sugar will only exacerbate these symptoms. One study found people who drank 2 sugary soft drinks a day had cortisol levels 22% higher than those who did not, showing a direct link between increased stress hormone production and sugar consumption.


When the sugar cravings set in, many are desperate for relief – this is where most people get tripped up. It can often trigger a cycle of binge eating and subsequent feelings of guilt, regret and failure and, as a result, many give up on their sugar-free goals. But be gentle with yourself, here at I Quit Sugar, there’s no such thing as failure and it’s never too late to get back on track. Here are a few quick tips to keep you grounded:

  1. Challenge negative self-talk: Try to reframe your negative thoughts and silence your inner critic.
  2. Find a healthy comfort: If you’re feeling bad about tripping up or tempted to lean on sugar to ease negative feelings, find an enjoyable activity to focus on. For example, chatting with a friend, going for a walk in nature or listening to music.
  3. Seek help: If you’re struggling with low mood, binge eating or depression, a therapist can provide the tools to help.

If you’re struggling to curb the cravings on your own, join us at I Quit Sugar for our 8-Week Program. You’ll have access to community forums and support from our own program ambassador to get you across the line and make your health goals a reality. Plus, with meal plans and recipes prepared for you, we’ve taken care of the hard work so you can focus on, well, you. Sign up HERE!

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