Have you ever woken up after a night of going overboard on sweets and felt like you were hungover? You’re not alone, and, no, it’s not all in your head. Here’s what you need to know about the very-real phenomenon of sugar hangovers—and how to bounce back.
The Brain On Sugar
Ever wonder why one cookie never seems to be enough? The ‘can’t stop’ feeling many of us experience after eating something sweet has a lot more to do with brain chemicals—and a lot to do with willpower—than we might realize.
“Eating simple sugar releases a flood of hormones into our brain,” explains Suzanne Dixon, R.D., dietitian at The Mesothelioma Center in Orlando. We’re not just talking about chocolate and candy bars here; refined carbs, like pancakes and white pasta, have the same effect as foods we typically think of as ‘sugary.’
Perhaps the two most noteworthy hormones affected by sugar are dopamine and serotonin. “We produce dopamine and serotonin when we eat highly palatable treats,” Dixon says. These ‘feel good’ hormones literally make us feel happy. (And want to keep indulging.) In fact, we can even start churning out dopamine by just thinking about sweet treats.
Together, it’s a recipe for continued cravings and sugar addiction.
The Body On Sugar
Aside from whacking out our brain chemicals, sugar also affects other parts of the body in a number of ways.
One obvious victim: our blood sugar. When we eat a lot of simple sugar (think a cookie versus a sweet potato), our blood sugar spikes and we feel the burst of energy known as a ‘sugar rush.’
Then, our pancreas produces the hormone insulin to move that sugar from our blood and into our cells to be used or stored. Thing is, we often produce too much insulin, which ends up moving so much sugar out of our blood that our blood sugar (and energy) rapidly drops. Over time, this cycle can contribute to weight gain, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.
Sugar also impacts our gut microbiome. While healthy, fiber-filled foods feed helpful bacteria we know as probiotics, the sweet stuff feeds harmful bacteria that produce toxic byproducts, says Dixon. Over-activity of these bugs can throw off overall microbiome balance, leading to inflammation, bloating, and discomfort—and contributing to chronic disease risk.
What A Sugar Hangover Looks Like
When we go overboard on sugar, the mess of resulting reactions throughout our body that follow can leave us feeling pretty terrible when the fun ends. Here are a few symptoms of a sugar hangover to look out for.
1. You Feel Down In The Dumps
When we indulge our sweet tooth often enough, we condition our brain to produce less dopamine and serotonin on its own, without that sugar stimulus. Not only does this kick-start the vicious cycle of sugar cravings, but it also affects our mood.
“When we aren’t busy enjoying or anticipating the enjoyment of the sweet stuff, our brains produce less dopamine and serotonin than they should,” says Dixon. When these feel-good chemicals drop—as they do after a sugar binge—we may experience the blues or feel like we’re in a funk.
The drop in blood sugar we experience post-sugar binge also messes with our mood.
In fact, low blood sugar often leaves us crabby.
2. Your Energy Is Nonexistent
You can thank low blood sugar for this one, too.
Though high and unstable blood sugar can be a problem, that glucose is our body’s—and brain’s—primary energy source. “When your blood sugar dips too low, your brain cells note that there isn’t enough energy,” says Dixon. When this happens, cells slow down and don’t run properly, leaving you feeling foggy and lethargic.
3. You Have A Headache
Yet another fun side effect of low blood sugar: headaches.
Often, severe changes in blood sugar signal the body to release the stress hormone cortisol, along with ‘fight or flight’ hormones norepinephrine and epinephrine, says Dixon.
As levels of these hormones change, they can dilate and constrict blood vessels in and around the brain, potentially causing headaches, she explains.
4. You’re A Little Nauseous
In some cases, low blood sugar can even make us feel nauseous.
“It is likely some of the same factors leading to headaches due to low blood sugar also contribute to nausea,” says Dixon. (Think hormonal shifts and changes in bloodflow.)
Though the reason isn’t clearly understood, low blood sugar may also trigger (whether directly or indirectly) the area of our brain known as the ‘area postrema’ or the ‘vomiting center.’
5. You Feel Bloated And Gassy
Remember those not-so-friendly gut bacteria that feed on sugar? Going overboard on sugar, which fuels those buggers, can result in some nasty bloating, according to Dixon.
For many people, the microbiome shift marked by over-activity of these harmful bacteria draws water into the gut and causes bloating (and discomfort). Oh, and did we mention these bacteria also produce gas?
Plus, since our bodies store sugar as glycogen (which stashes water molecules along with it), suddenly overloading on carbs sky-rockets the amount of water we hold onto.
6. You Want ALL The Junk Food
Now that you know how sugar affects your dopamine and serotonin production (especially over time), it’s no surprise that you want to eat nothing but junk food the day after sugar overload.
When your feel-good hormones hit a low post-binge, you’ll be tempted to turn to more sweets to bump them back up.
How To Bounce Back From A Sugar Hangover
Tempting as it is to dive into a stack of pancakes when you’re feeling like garbage the morning after eating too much cake or ice cream or whatever, the right strategy will help you bounce back. Consider the following your sugar hangover recovery plan.
1. Drink Lots Of Water
If you’re already dealing with the woes of a sugar hangover, dehydration will only make things worse.
Dixon recommends drinking enough water throughout the day to maintain pale yellow urine, which indicates you’re well-hydrated.
Not only will rehydrating help normalize your digestion and ease any headaches, but it will also ease bloating and encourage your body to flush out extra water, she says.
2. Load Up On Fiber
Fiber helps us feel satiated and stabilizes our blood sugar, lifting our energy levels after hitting the sugar hard.
But that’s not its only benefit: Fiber also feeds the healthy bacteria in our gut. “Feeding the good bugs in your gut post-sugar binge can also help your system get back on track,” says Dixon.
You’ll be back to your normal, healthy eating pattern before you know it.
3. Include Protein And Fat In Every Meal
To further support stable blood sugar and satiety, pair any carb-y foods you eat with protein and fat, says Jessica Levinson, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., New York-based culinary nutrition expert and author of 52-Week Meal Planner.
4. Move Your Body
Difficult as it may be to get up off the couch after a sugar rush, exercising also goes a long way in helping you bounce back from the hangover.
“Exercise or move your body in a way you enjoy, whether it’s walking, running, bicycling, or playing a sport,” says Levinson. Movement promotes healthy blood sugar and insulin function—and boosts production of endorphins, other feel good hormones that put you in a peppier mood. Get moving and you’ll feel better almost instantly.
5. Don’t Beat Yourself Up
Though overeating sugar can trigger feelings of guilt, and even shame, perhaps the most important thing you can do afterwards is cut yourself some slack.
Restrict yourself the day after over-indulging and you just set yourself up for gnarlier cravings and potential binges in the future, says Dixon.
If you simply get back to your regular, balanced eating habits (read: don’t restrict calories or healthy carbs), you’re less likely to go overboard again in the future.