Have you ever woken up the day after consuming way more sugar and simple carbs than normal feeling like you’re hungover? You’re not alone- sugar hangovers are a thing, and they aren’t pleasant. Upset stomach, foggy-ness, fatigue, headache, dehydration, elevated anxiety, and even muscle cramps (likely due to inflammation) are all side effects of consuming too much sugar. A “sugar crash” might make you feel just kind of gross and tired, but this just feels a little more extreme. That’s because that is basically what a “sugar hangover” is- your body dealing with an extreme sugar crash. So why does it feel so much worse?
Eating a little more sugar than normal creates a spike in blood sugar due to the quick influx of easily processed carbs from simple sugars. Your pancreas responds by releasing insulin. You will still have a relatively large flux in your glucose levels, which give you that “sugar rush” feeling. Unless you have diabetes, your body can quickly process this influx, but the result is that you are left a few hours later feeling a little tired, but other than that, pretty ok.
A sugar hangover is caused by your pancreas either not being able to respond appropriately, or producing more insulin than needed. After this insulin peak, your blood glucose will start falling rapidly. This is known as reactive hypoglycemia. If you do not have diabetes, your pancreas will keep your blood sugar within a technically normal range (by releasing glucagon to keep your glucose levels up), but your blood sugar can dip lower than what you are used to. This is especially true for people who maintain a low-sugar or low-simple carb diet. Relative to what your body is used to, your symptoms may be more or less extreme but include fatigue, headache, bad mood and anxiety, dizziness, confusion, blurry vision, hunger, and even shaking and sweating.
Before we move on, please note that if you do have diabetes, higher than normal or lower than normal blood sugar levels can be life threatening. Please consult your doctor if any of these symptoms become extreme, or you have been diagnosed with diabetes in the past. Consistently consuming high levels of sugar can lead to type 2 diabetes. The CDC recommends “Less than 10 percent of calories per day starting at age 2. Avoid foods and beverages with added sugars for those younger than age 2.” If you regularly consume more than this amount, it might be a good idea to talk to your doctor about monitoring your sugar intake.
Why did you eat that much sugar in the first place? Sugar consumption releases serotonin and dopamine, both of which are responsible for “happy feelings”, at least initially. That’s what makes sugar so addicting. Just like with any other addictive substance, after your brain releases higher levels of serotonin and dopamine, you are left wanting more. When your body doesn’t get more, it starts to exhibit symptoms of withdrawal. The intensity of which is determined individually, and includes how much sugar you consume and how frequently. Due to the lack of those feel good hormones, you might experience anxiety, fatigue, and a generally low mood as your body detoxes from all that sugar. It’s a cycle which can be broken. You just need to get through the initial cravings (which can be harder than it sounds) and focus on what’s better for your body in the long term!
So what do you do if you are experiencing a “sugar hangover”? First, hydrate. This helps your body flush out extra fluid that can cause headache and indigestion. I can also help your gut’s microbiome to return to normal. Being dehydrated only makes your symptoms worse. Second, load up on fiber. Fiber helps your blood sugar levels return to normal, with the added bonus of aiding your gut’s microbiome. It’s also a good idea to include protein in every meal, especially if you are eating simple carbs, as it helps stabilize blood sugar and helps to keep you feeling full. Last but certainly not least- move more! Movement promotes healthy blood sugar and insulin function (which can also be very beneficial in those with diabetes long term). Not only that, but exercise (even mild exercise like walking) promotes the production of endorphins and other feel good hormones!
All of this doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the occasional treat. In fact, attempting to eliminate sugar from your diet entirely only sets you up to binge on it later. A super restrictive diet is too hard to stick to in the long run, but allowing yourself to eat whatever you want whenever you want can lead to unhealthy habits- as with all things in life, it is about balance!