Headache, cravings, depression; the trifecta of sugar withdrawal. Right now I’m feeling all three symptoms at the same time. It’s not the worst headache I’ve ever had, just a dull ache in my left temple that comes and goes every few minutes. The cravings on the other hand are the worst I’ve ever had. An invisible hand is firmly drawing my attention to the pantry even though I’m not hungry. It’s a need I feel more intensely than the headache. The depression is a full body tiredness, forcing me to abandon my plans of going to the gym or leaving the house at all.
Sugar withdrawal isn’t something you can get through without having a plan. Unfortunately most of the advice you’ll find on the internet about sugar withdrawal and sugar addiction is only marginally useful. “Drink more water and eat healthy food? Thanks internet! That should really help when I’m dead tired from work, the kids are screaming, and all I can think about is ice cream.” What you need are real strategies to get through sugar withdrawal and into “the promised land” where sugar cravings are small, energy is high, and headaches are nonexistent.
First we need to talk about why this is happening in the first place. Sugar cravings and sugar withdrawal are symptoms of sugar addiction plane and simple. You may not be comfortable admitting to yourself that you’re addicted to sugar, but you can’t have withdrawal from something you aren’t dependent upon and dependent is just another word for addicted. Don’t feel bad, sugar addiction is way more common than you probably realize.
Sugar withdrawal typically begins a few hours after you last consumed sugar. Some people call it “carb flu” as sugar addiction and carbohydrate addiction are synonymous. Basically, after significantly reducing sugar (and other processed carbs) in your diet, your body will go through a period of adaptation where it switches over from a carbohydrate dominant metabolism to a fat dominant metabolism (or ideally a more flexible metabolism that can switch between using both fat and carbs for energy). During this period of adaptation you may experience all kinds of unpleasant symptoms. In addition to headaches, strong cravings, and depression; you might also experience anxiety, brain fog, and hunger. The whole withdrawal phase can last about a week and a half to two weeks.
Fortunately, once you get through the withdrawal phase everything gets much easier. The painful symptoms disappear, energy goes up, and most importantly sugar cravings calm down. It’s crucial that you have a plan to get through this phase because it’s the hardest part of breaking your dependency on sugar. Here are five things you can do to get through the sugar withdrawal phase:
1. Celebrate the sugar withdrawal phase.
It might sound crazy, but you have reason to celebrate. Making it to the withdrawal phase is an accomplishment. It means you’ve been able to resist consuming sugar and processed carbohydrates for long enough to experience symptoms. Even better, it means your body is finally starting to access fat for energy. Before this phase your body couldn’t do anything with your fat other than add to it. Think about that for a moment. You have fat on your body you probably want to get rid of, but you couldn’t even access it until now. Your metabolism is starting to shift over to converting stored fat into fuel. Even though you feel terrible it’s time to shift your mindset to thinking this is a part of the process to celebrate rather than sulk over.
2. Increase healthy fats.
You should’ve already started doing this when you quit sugar. Unless you’ve made it your goal to experience moderate starvation and sugar withdrawal at the same time, cutting carbs without increasing fat is a recipe for failure. Focus on adding natural fats like avocado, nuts, high quality butter, and olive oil. Don’t be afraid to increase animal fats either. The extra fat will make you feel full and train your metabolism to burn fat like Mr. Miyagi trained the Karate Kid to kick ass. Wax on, wax off. Fat in, fat off.
3. Consume coconut or MCT oil to shorten sugar withdrawal.
One of my favorite health authorities Robb Wolf is a huge proponent of this. You may have heard of MCT oil already. It stands for Medium Chain Triglyceride which is just another type of fat, but it’s a special type of fat that your body can quickly convert into energy unlike other fats. It’s also difficult for you body to store it. Medium chain triglycerides are associated with a host of health benefits, but of importance to us is the fact that your body really prefers to burn them for energy instead of storing them on your muffin top. This can speed the process of switching your metabolism over from carb dominant to fat dominant. MCT oil can be expensive so as an alternative you can always use coconut oil which is full of MCT’s. I like coconut oil but don’t find eating tablespoons of it to be all that pleasant so instead I just cook most of my food in it or use it like a condiment over steamed vegetables.
4. Use L-Glutamine to fight cravings.
When I read online or hear people advising others to simply drink a glass of water to help fight off sugar cravings I always roll my eyes a little. Who wants to drink a glass of water when they’re obsessing about donuts? But lot’s of people are looking for a magic pill that will banish sugar cravings and make life easier. Let me be the first to tell you: it exists and it’s dirt cheap. You do have to know how to use it though. L-Glutamine is an amino acid that’s essential to our bodies for all kinds of functions. In fact, we use so much of it that it’s considered a “conditionally essential” amino acid for everybody. One of the benefits of supplementing with L-Glutamine is that it quickly curbs sugar cravings.
The trick is to know when the cravings will come so you can supplement beforehand. Don’t worry, predicting your sugar cravings is easier than it sounds. Most people crave sugar in the evening just after dinner or right after the long work day. Just pay attention to your body for a few days and you’ll figure it out. Drink that glass of water, but mix in five grams of L-Glutamine powder to really ward off cravings. It comes in pill form as well.
5. Meal prep.
Nobody wants to hear this, but the dirty little secret about all good diets is that if you don’t meal prep you will fail. You’ll be at work or traveling somewhere when you get hungry and the only options around you will be fast food and vending machines. Without any food prepped you are guaranteed to make a bad choice and ruin your diet. You might be able to get around this by going through some sort of healthy meal prep service, but those tend to be really expensive. Prep your meals, get a lunch box, and conquer your sugar demons. There’s simply no way to be successful without doing this and I’m not going to lie to you for clicks.
After struggling with my sugar addiction for many years I was finally able to get it under control in part due to these strategies. For more of my story and more strategies for fighting your own sugar demons, join my email list and become a part of my book launch for Slay Your Sugar Demons!