Thinking About Quitting Sugar? Here's What to Expect

According to WebMD, sugar “wreaks havoc on our liver, mucks up our metabolism, impairs brain function, and may leave us susceptible to heart disease, diabetes, even cancer.”

Food is, in the realm of neuroscience, a “natural reward.” This means that activities necessary for our survival as a species have been coded to provide pleasure. This way, our brains seek out willful repetition. When we were foraging for foods, sweet berries provided important nutrition. According to Jordon Gaines Lewis, neuroscience doctoral candidate and Mashable contributor, “Our mesolimbic pathway reinforces that sweet things provide a healthy source of carbohydrates for our bodies.” But, he notes, things have gotten out of hand.

According to the Mashable article, the average American a decade ago consumed 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day, and that likely has risen. Some experts suggest that many Americans eat about five times as much sugar as is considered healthy. Yet 80% of our food choices contain added sugar, and according to recent findings, the amount of “hidden sugar” is pretty terrifying. Little has been done to sway consumers away from sweet treats beyond somewhat meek awareness programs. Thus, we remain happily hooked.

Sugar addiction is real. According to Lewis, sugar is addictive in the same ways that nicotine, cocaine, and even heroin are. These substances “hijack the brain’s reward pathway and make users dependent.”

One of Lewis’s friends decided to give up sugar for Lent and chronicled his experience. “The first few days are a little rough. … It almost feels like you’re detoxing from drugs. I found myself eating a lot of carbs to compensate for the lack of sugar.” And indeed, much like drugs, sugar has been found to spike dopamine release in the brain. Regular sugar consumption changes the gene expression and functionality of dopamine receptors. In other words, our brains become accustomed to sugar, and ever more of it is needed to experience that same “sugar high.” Meanwhile, other dopamine receptor cause-and-response impulses may be dulled.

That also means that sugar withdrawal is very real, as well, in addition to the immediate impacts of sugar addiction, like foggy thinking or weight gain. Lewis notes that in studies conducted on lab rats, subjects weaned off of their regular sugar diets experienced teeth chattering, paw tremors, and head shaking. They also exhibited behavior that suggested hopelessness, anxiety, and impulsive behavior.

According to Dr. Datis Kharrazian, functional medicine expert and author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?, sugar-heavy diets cause overstimulation of our mood-boosting serotonin neurotransmitters. Overactivating these pathways can deplete them, which can contribute to symptoms of depression.

The studies seem to go on and on.

According to Lewis, after 40 days, his friend who gave up sugar for Lent had gotten through the worst. He may have even managed to reverse some of his sugar-addled dopamine signaling: “I remember eating my first sweet and thinking it was too sweet.”

So the next time you’re on deadline and feel yourself craving a doughnut, take a deep breath, brew yourself a cup of mint tea with a small dollop of honey, and know you’re doing the right thing. It may not be easy, but it’s almost certainly worth it.

Want to learn how to bake with far less sugar? Check out Joanne Chang's best-selling cookbook.

Do you have any experience with giving up sugar? Share your thoughts below.