If you inhaled Halloween candy last night and feel less than your best this morning, you may be wondering: Are sugar hangovers a thing?
Of course, they aren’t in a literal sense ― real hangovers involve drinking too much alcohol. But a sugar crash can certainly have shades of a hangover: including symptoms such as brain fog, irritability, headache and fatigue.
“Sugar hangovers are real in that you feel lousy after consuming a hefty dose of sugar,” Kim Larson, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics told The Huffington Post.
Initially, refined sugars increase your endorphins and make you feel good. “Then our blood sugars drop and we can become cranky, irritable and tired,” Larson said.
One sugar binge and crash is no big deal, but regularly consuming excess sugar can take a toll on health over time. In addition to weight gain, an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, regularly eating too much sugar can actually change your brain.
Too much sugar too often and you run the risk of creating sugar habit, although Laura Schmidt, a professor of health policy at the University of California at San Francisco stops short of calling that habit an addiction.
“We don’t have specific research on hangovers, but we have pretty good evidence on withdrawal and cravings with sugar,” Schmidt said. “You can, in large quantities over time, change the reward system in your brain. That’s something to think about.”
Sugar elevates dopamine levels ― the pleasure part of the brain ― and if outside dopamine regularly floods into the system, over time, the brain thinks it can make less of its own dopamine. If that outside sugar source is cut off, that’s where cravings kick in.
“The brain is saying, ‘Hey, where’s the dopamine?’” Schmidt told HuffPost.
Cravings may be more intense for some people than others. A small study published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2014 took brain scans of 23 children while they tasted sugar. The brains of obese children in the study lit up differently than the brains of kids of average weight, indicating that they were experiencing an enhanced response to, and a greater psychological reward from, the sugar.
The best way to avoid those short- and long-term sugar effects? Limit how much you indulge in food with added sugars, such as sugary drinks, candy, cookies and desserts.
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a hard limit on added sugar, saying it should make up no more than 10 percent of your daily calories.
“Eating sugar daily isn’t something most people need to do,” Larson said.