Sugar Withdrawal

Sugar withdrawal is marked by sugar cravings. Sometimes cravings are the only aspect of withdrawal that we're consciously aware of. At other times, the headaches and distress are about as subtle as a flying mallet.

If you feel some combination of the following symptoms along with the desire for sugar: you are in sugar withdrawal.

Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms

Intense cravings

"I just feel like I need something now," I might think. "I'd really like a candy bar...I can't stop thinking about it...I'm so tired, I know it would wake me up...I'm just about out of steam...I've got to have that candy bar..."

In these thoughts, you see the tiredness that seems to demand sugar, the jittery nervousness of withdrawal, and the persistence behind the cravings. These are thoughts I'd never have about plain food, or about any substance that I wasn't addicted to!

A real physical addiction?

Fly in SugarThe Dark Side of Sugar

It's a real, physical addiction, of the same kind as addiction to morphine and other opiates. This has been demonstrated by animal experiments, research into neurochemistry, and the development of drugs that block the effects of opiates.

Addiction to refined sugar--an unnatural food used in an unnatural way--is believed to change the way that opioids work in the brain. Opioids is a more general term for opiate-like substances. The brain has natural opioid receptors for its internally produced opioids, such as the endorphins you may have heard of.

The opioid systems of the central nervous system are thought to be the natural "pleasure" pathways in the brain, as well as a  natural way for the body to deal with pain.

In experiments, rats become addicted to refined sugar, in a way that meets all the criteria of drug dependence. When deprived of sugar, they go into physical withdrawal. Rat withdrawal involves: low body temperature, teeth chattering, head shaking, paw tremors, fearful behavior, lack of motivation, and aggression.

Alternately, sugar-addicted rats can be put into withdrawal by being given the drug naloxone, an opiod antagonist. This drug blocks opiate receptors in the central nervous system, prevents sugar from stimulating them, and thus provokes withdrawal symptoms. This demonstrates that sugar addiction involves opioid receptors.

Withdrawal due to abstinence from refined sugar is described as the "lack of stimulation of some opioid system" in the medical journal article referenced below.

Ending the addiction

One way to prevent sugar withdrawal is to continue the addiction—that's what we do subconsciously: by eating small amounts of sugar frequently all day long, by binging, by uncomfortable combinations of the two, or even through elaborate rules that try to keep the addiction within limits.

Any continuation of the addiction is both a constant struggle and bound to fail.

The long term solution is to end the addiction. Healthy foods will help to decrease the addiction (described in Breaking Sugar Addiction), and ultimately pursuing a sugar free diet helps end it.


It is usually wise to taper off from refined sugar rather than to go "cold turkey." Unbearable withdrawal and cravings is counterproductive. (There are, however, health resorts that will help change your diet overnight.)

The first things to taper could be the obvious, and perhaps one at a time: soda pop, chocolate, candy, cookies, ice cream, and bakery.

Don't keep these items around the house. Make each purchase a conscious decision for immediate consumption.

Remind yourself that money spent on these foods is worse than wasted: it is money spent harming yourself. Reward yourself for not buying sugary foods.

More information

Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 2008: 32(1): 20-39. Nicole M. Avena, Pedro Rada, Bartley G. Hoebel. Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake.

Related food addictions

Related food addictions provoke sugar addiction and affect your ability to stay out of sugar withdrawal.

People with health challenges may need or want to cut everything at once; most people can try eliminating one addiction at a time and each may require its own tapering.

1. The artificial sweeteners in diet soda and other foods provoke and prolong sugar addiction and have additional side effects of their own.

Aspartame is associated with headaches, vision problems, seizures, and many other serious symptoms, as shown by many thousands of complaints to the FDA. Approximately 80% of all consumer complaints to the FDA concern aspartame!

It is likely that all of the artificial sweeteners are harmful. They are addictive and have been shown to increase appetite.

2. You rarely see chocolate without sugar accompanying it as an ingredient. I think everyone has the experience of mood altered by chocolate. It is also addictive.

3. Caffeine is similar in effects to sugar, but more so, and is profoundly addictive.

4. Which foods do you know make you ill? Foods that give you headaches, sleepiness, nausea, stomach aches, or diarrhea stress your body to the point that it will demand sugar.

Common problem foods are: dairy foods, wheat gluten, and nightshade vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, green peppers, and chili peppers). These foods can be addictive. Notoriously: milk, cheese, ice cream, pizza, bread, pasta, Mexican food, jalapenos, and french fries all lend themselves to addictive eating.

5. Alcoholism is a dangerous addiction beyond the scope of this site. Alcohol is a refined product, even more poisonous than sugar; like refined sugar, it has no nutritional value. Some people seem to use it interchangeably with sugar.