Cutting Added Sugar From My Diet Was One of the Hardest Things I’ve Ever Done
Let me start out by saying this: I’ve never had a sweet tooth. I’ve always been able to take three bites of my desert and leave the rest sitting on the table like an extremely classy (maybe French?) person. My husband’s the one who makes toast or rummages through the pantry like a 6-foot squirrel at 1am. I’m the one who’s got it under control.
I did, however, have a daily apple habit (for the fiber). And over time, I started to notice that soon after eating an apple, my blood sugar would tank, leaving me hands-shaking and desperate for a Renaissance Fair-sized turkey drumstick. I’d have to eat a high-protein snack just to make it through to dinnertime, and even then, I was a ticking time bomb. I had an hour or two after eating an apple before I’d have crisis-level low blood sugar — and because I’m predisposed to anxiety, an ensuing panic attack.
The effect of low blood sugar on anxiety is particularly magnified if I’m out of the house, alone, with my kiddo. I imagine that, on some nonconscious, lizard-brain level, a dark corner of my nervous system anticipates having a medical event — because panic attacks get interpreted by the body as the presence of a real threat, thereby magnifying the panic. And the fear of my kid being left alone and vulnerable magnifies that panic. And so on.
Generally speaking, this pandemic and its partner, the internalized election hysteria, have not been great for the health of my nervous system. All potential anxiety triggers have become stacked on top of one another in a multi-dimensional domino effect, and I’ve felt the need to eliminate as many of them as I can.
So one day, after calling my husband to rescue my kiddo and me from a post-apple, pre-dinner, mid-crisis park date, I decided to cut out apples for good.
When I made this decision, I had no idea that “sugar detox” or “sugar withdrawal” were things. I figured I’d cut out apples and that would be that. On to an easier, smoother-riding pandemic. A slightly less gripping and throttling political shitshow.
But as it turned out, the physical and mental symptoms of “sugar withdrawal” were like nothing I could have imagined. I wasn’t cutting out that much sugar in the form of apples — Google says they’re about 19 grams of sugar apiece — but apparently, brains will cling to every gram of that stuff. You will drag each one from your brain as it kicks, screams, and curses.
Cognitive issues are a major symptom of sugar withdrawal because sugar releases dopamine from the nucleus accumbens in the same way that, for example, alcohol does. Additionally, gut bacteria (of which sugar produces the bad kind) can have a profound effect on mood. So the reorganization of both your brain wiring and your gut flora can produce anxiety, depression, and brain fog. I was exempt from none of these symptoms.
The brain fog got so bad that my husband, a non-scientist, had to remind me, a neuroscience student, that the brain’s primary source of energy is glucose. It was bad.
Here’s how it went:
Day 0: This was the first day I forewent my apple. Nothing happened.
Day 1: I woke up with a stabbing headache that lasted all day. My medical anxiety kicked in and I jumped immediately to “it’s a brain aneurysm.” But as I’ve trained myself to do over my years of having hypochondria, I reflected on what I’d recently changed, wondered whether “sugar withdrawal” was a thing, and had my suspicions confirmed by the internet. Reading the symptoms in this article prepared me for what came next:
Day 2: Dizziness, plus a lingering dull headache. I also noticed significantly less sweat during my workout. Whereas I usually drench my tank top, today I had a mere misting under my pits.
Day 3: My headache and dizziness were gone, but I’ve developed intense sugar cravings. I’ve been considering the consequences of pillaging the stash of candy we keep for my kiddo’s potty training (like an accident? Because I would totally clean up someone’s poop for a fistful of gummy worms right now). I am suddenly and abnormally excited for Halloween.
Day 4: I still have sugar cravings. I also realized I’ve had brain fog for three days now. I have multiple medical tests scheduled for this week, so I chalked the brain fog up to medical anxiety, but then rechecked the symptom list and realized, yup, brain fog is a sugar withdrawal thing.
I’ve also been feeling irritable and depressive. This was the toughest mental health day I’ve had so far. I’ve felt unproductive and stupid and everything I write sucks. On the other hand, anxiety is markedly lower than usual, which is kind of neat.
Day 5: I’m pretty sure my tolerance for coffee has gone up, as most of my usual anxiety triggers seem blunted. Not sure if this is a positive symptom (depressiveness/foggy-headedness) or a negative symptom (decreased anxiety).
Day 6: I think my sugar withdrawal-related brain fog is better today. But it’s been taken over by anxiety-related brain fog because my breast ultrasound was abnormal and I have to go back tomorrow for a follow-up diagnostic. Yay 2020.
Day 7: My follow-up ultrasound was clean! And my symptoms are greatly diminished. I’m feeling better and stronger, like that wasn’t so bad. In fact, I can do better!
I do a quick audit of my diet and realize it has other sources of added sugar. Between my honey-roasted peanut butter and the honey added to my Greek yogurt, there’s another 15 to 16 grams I can cut out. I can do more. I can do better. I can improve some aspect of this apocalypse horseman ride of a year.
But first, I’ll give myself a day or two of good mental health (treat yourself! Especially in 2020).
Day 8: Nothing. Sweet, sweet nothingness.
Day 9: Switched to plain peanut butter and yogurt on the same day and it was a disaster. I almost died taking my kid shopping for a Halloween costume. I had to rush home because I was dizzy and shaky and my heart was racing and my chest was tight. I felt like I was getting sick and immediately assumed I’d finally succumbed to the coronavirus pandemic. Sincerely worried that I was coming down with COVID, I took an immune system booster and almost immediately felt better. When I looked at the labels on my Emergen-C and Elderberry supplement, I realized I’d just guzzled 14 grams of sugar — the exact amount of my deficit.
Day 10: Kept sugary yogurt and sugary peanut butter to let myself stabilize. I can do this. I just need a break.
Day 11: Kept the sugary yogurt, but switched to plain peanut butter. Brain fog’s back.
Day 12: I woke up at 4:45am panicking about the Supreme Court and Election Day. You know how the world looks blurry when you take your glasses off? That’s how my brain feels. The brain fog, and depressiveness are so brutal I want to throw in the towel and spread melted Hershey bars on my toast.
Day 13: Brain fog seems to be better, which makes sense, as honey-roasted peanut butter only has a few grams of sugar per serving. So the lingering inability to focus or write may be the ongoing cloudy fall weather coupled with pandemic ennui and election day panic. But the thought of switching out my yogurt and going through this again is feeling less appealing, let alone doable.
Day 14: I had my first truly good mental health day in two weeks. I got a shit ton of writing done and feel great. The sun was shining and my brain worked and I was able to gather hope that Biden is a closet progressive waiting until after inauguration to let his inner Bernie Sanders pop out like a socialist jack-in-the-box.
I’m not going to switch out my yogurt. I made a baby step or two toward improving my physical or mental health or controlling one of the very few things currently in my power, and I don’t feel able to afford losing any more good days. Not with all this.
Maybe in 2021.