The 9 Biggest Problems You'll Run Into When Trying To Quit Sugar (And How To Solve Each)

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There is no sugarcoating it: Going off of sugar can be freaking difficult. If you have ever done a real food plan or detox protocol, you know what I am talking about. So what gives? Why does going off sugar make many people feel like they are an addict? Well, because they are.

Sex, Drugs & Sugar

Sugar, in all its various forms, is pervasive in so many foods that people eat today. Though sometimes called by healthier, exotic-sounding euphemisms like agave nectar, evaporated cane, or turbinado, it is all still sugar. As if the ubiquity of added sugar to our food wasn't enough, we add sugar to foods that turn into sugar, namely grains. So what is this doing to our brain? The nucleus accumbens, our brain's main pleasure center, is constantly being triggered by our intake of sugar.

Our brain's nucleus accumbens receives a signal from dopamine, our pleasure neurotransmitter. All of this same biochemical stuff also happens during sex and when someone does drugs. The problem with all this sugar stimulation is that prolonged dopamine signal creates a tolerance.

Over time, this creates deeper neuronal pathways, and we also need more sugar to give us the same euphoric fix. And when we try to stop? Hello, withdrawal and detox symptoms. I think sometimes that it is easier to change a person's religion than the foods they eat, and sugar is at the heart of this deeply entrenched affinity for all things sweet and carby.

As a functional medicine practitioner, I see this on a regular, almost hourly, basis with patients. Hostility, defensiveness, and tears often ensue at just the suggestion of going off of all things sugary, even just for a few weeks. So if you are considering going on a sugar detox or are in the midst of one now, here is your go-to guide. These are the top symptoms I have seen in patients over the years and, more importantly, an action step to mitigate each of these gnarly signs of sugar withdrawal:

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1. The Problem: Cravings

Going off sugar can awaken the hangry monster something real fierce. The dopamine response in the brain and the insulin spike throughout the body can elicit strong, insatiable cravings.

What to do:

Eating healthy fats is, arguably, the best way to curb cravings. I am a fan of fat bomb treats. These little dessert snacks are packed with healthy fats and are sweetened with natural sugar alternatives like the stevia plant or sugar alcohols like xylitol. You can opt for whole food starchy tubers like sweet potatoes to get your carbs in a whole food form. I love Japanese sweet potatoes particularly.

2. The problem: Digestive issues

When you stop eating foods that contain sugar or break down into sugar, this will shift your gut microbiome. The trillions of bacteria and yeast in your gastrointestinal system eat what you eat. We aren't what we eat as much as we are what our microbiome eats. Certain opportunistic yeast and bacteria particularly love consuming sugars from our food, so when they aren't getting their regular meals, this can create some "die-off" symptoms.This can manifest as bloating, constipation, or diarrhea as the microbiome adjusts to new foods.

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What to do:

Adding some galangal broth (galangal is ginger's cousin) or organic bone broth to your meals or having them as meals are some of my favorite ways to soothe your digestive system.

3. The problem: Fatigue

Most people today are fueling their energy levels with different sources of sugar. If you decide to cut down on the sweet and carby things in life, this can leave you feeling exhausted throughout the day.

What to do:

Instead of sugar, healthy fats are another source of fuel for your body. Avocados, olives, coconut, and wild-caught fish are some sources of fats to fuel your brain and metabolism.

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4. The problem: Flu-like symptoms

Similar to other chemical addictions, coming off sugar can elicit flu-like symptoms for some people. This isn't a sign that your body needs the sugary stuff! On the contrary, this is your body's attempt to recalibrate from its dependency.

What to do:

Supporting your body's natural detoxification pathways when you are coming off of sugar will benefit you. Supplementing NAC (n-acetyl cysteine) and dandelion root and adding cilantro to meals are some of my top tips to make your life a detox.

5. The problem: Headaches

All these dopamine and microbiome fluctuations that come with detoxing from sugar can trigger headaches in some people.

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What to do:

Two of my favorite natural medicines to calm headaches and migraines are turmeric and magnesium. The curcuminoids of turmeric help to down-regulate cytokine (inflammation) activity, and magnesium is nature's chill pill.

6. The problem: Hunger

One of the top mistakes I find when people try avoiding sugar is that they remove the sugar-containing foods they eat without replacing them with foods to fill in the caloric deficit left behind without the sugar! This will leave you feeling hungry, miserable, and doubting your well-intentioned decision to eat clean.

What to do:

As your body adjusts to your new way of healthy eating, make sure you are nourishing your body with delicious, filling foods. You don't have to eat like a rabbit, munching on kale all day, to be healthy. Eat healthy, real foods until you are satiated. Check out my elimination diet video class for direction, support, and a plan.

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7. The problem: Mood changes

When someone is used to having sugar included in some way with every meal and then stops, it affects the brain. When the chronic dopamine stimulation slows down, this can trigger withdrawal symptoms: irritability, moodiness, anxiety, or depression. But just like any other druglike substance, sugar also aggravates these health issues. I have written in the past about how sugar can dramatically trigger and perpetuate anxiety and depression. Because of this, when these mood detox symptoms subside, the brain will be more balanced.

What to do:

I love me some adaptogens for brain and mood balance. One particular adaptogen, mucuna pruriens, I particular enjoy when it comes to supporting healthy dopamine function. Mucuna contains the L-dopa compound, a precursor to dopamine! For a full guide on adaptogens, geek out on my mindbodygreen guide. You're welcome.

8. The problem: Muscle aches

One of the benefits that occurs when you cut out sugar from your life is that you lose inflammation and edema in your body. This causes water-weight loss as well, which can cause some loss of electrolytes (magnesium, potassium, sodium, and calcium), which can contribute to flu-like symptoms (keto flu) and muscle aches and cramping.

What to do:

Focus on foods that are naturally rich in electrolytes like avocados, leafy greens like spinach, nuts and seeds, and sea salt. You also can supplement with electrolytes in powder form and add to your water.

9. The problem: Shakiness

When your body is used to being sustained by the next sugary fix, getting off the blood sugar roller coaster can leave you feeling shaky and even dizzy.

What to do:

If you are prone to getting low blood sugar, start with getting 15 to 25 grams of clean protein (and the accompanying healthy fat content) such as wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, and/or organic nuts and seeds with every meal. If you get "hangry" before the next meal, you didn’t eat enough protein for your body’s needs. For more blood-sugar balancing ideas, check out my article on the subject.

Want to get off sugar but still need some sweetness in your life? These are the best alternative sweeteners, from good to bad to ugly.

And are you ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Kelly LeVeque.

William Cole, D.C., IFMCP

Functional Medicine Practitioner
Dr. Will Cole, leading functional-medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam at www.drwillcole.com and locally in Pittsburgh. He specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing health programs for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal dysfunctions, digestive disorders, and brain problems.Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional-medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the author of Ketotarian in which he melds the powerful benefits of the ketogenic and plant-based diets.
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William Cole, D.C., IFMCP

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