This Is Why You Might Get a Headache When You Cut Out Sugar

This Is Why You Might Get a Headache When You Cut Out Sugar

So you’re considering cutting sugar from your diet, or maybe you’re already on your way. Whatever the case, you’ve probably heard about some of the potential side effects when giving sugar the boot, like the dreaded sugar withdrawal.

The truth is, when you cut the sweet stuff from your diet, some people may experience some initial negative effects, one of which is the potential sugar “detox” headache.

Why does this happen? It’s likely because cutting sugar stresses your brain a bit. Let’s take a closer look.

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The Effect of Sugar on the Body

sugar withdrawal - dopamine

When you eat sugar, your brain releases dopamine, the “feel-good” brain chemical. Your body associates it with a reward. “Logically, you may know that sugar is bad and can lead to adverse effects, but your reward center drives you to just keep eating,” says Michele Promaulayko, author and creator of Sugar Free 3.

When you cut back on added sugar, or eliminate it from your diet completely, your body has to adjust to not getting regular hits of dopamine from that particular source. Meanwhile, levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that causes neurons to fire, rise. This can cause the nervous system some distress, leading to aches and pains in the body and sugar withdrawal symptoms such as:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness


Understanding the Sugar Withdrawal Headache

sugar withdrawal - woman with headache

A headache is perhaps the most common symptom people report when they cut out sugar or caffeine. Researchers aren’t 100 percent positive why headaches occur as a sugar withdrawal symptom, but they theorize it could be due, at least in part, to the brain’s stress system.

In a study published in the journal PNAS, researchers fed two groups of mice different diets — one consistently low in sugar and one high in sugar (chocolate-flavored), on certain days. They found that the mice on the cycled chocolate-flavored sugary diet exhibited some withdrawal-like responses when they didn’t have access to the sweet stuff. Their levels of corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) — a hormone in the part of the brain that controls fear, anxiety, and stress responses — was raised. It was five times higher than the control group, and only stabilized when the mice were fed chocolate-flavored sugary feed.

How long does sugar withdrawal last?

Don’t let any of this dissuade you from reducing or eliminating added sugar from your diet. According to the Cleveland Clinic, you can break your sugar habit in just 10 days. And chances are, if you’re like most of us, you eat way too much anyway. The average American consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar a day, which means 270 calories from added sugars every. single. day.

That’s way over the American Heart Association’s recommendation that men have no more than 9 teaspoons (150 calories) and women no more than 6 teaspoons (100 calories) per day.

It’s not entirely our fault: Food manufacturers sneak added sugar into products we’d never expect, including breads, tomato sauce, salad dressings, and some low-fat foods. (When fat is removed, it has to be replaced with something, and that something else is usually sugar.)

Limiting your intake of added sugars along with maintaining a healthy weight and adopting a healthier lifestyle can have a range of positive effects, including maintaining steadier energy levels. Don’t let the potential of a temporary headache dissuade you from making changes that can improve your overall health for a lifetime.