Sugar Hangovers: Are They Real?Oct. 28, 2020 - Katie McCallum
Sugar hangover. Carb coma. Food fatigue. After-dinner dip. It goes by many names, a few of which trend towards dramatic. (It's not really a hangover, and it's a certainly not a coma).
You can pick any name you want for this phenomenon, but, to your body, it's all just one issue: Something you ate sent your blood sugar up — way up — and there are some short-lived, but uncomfortable, consequences.
"Eating a large amount of sugar or simple carbs in one sitting can result in some mild, but unpleasant, side effects — particularly if your blood sugar gets high enough," says Dr. Karla Saint Andre, endocrinologist at Houston Methodist. "For most people, this rapid increase in blood sugar doesn't last long, and its related symptoms aren't cause for any immediate concern."
We've all experienced the hangover-like malaise that comes along with being a little too snacky, but what do you really know about a sugar hangover?
What is a sugar hangover exactly?
"Whether it's a sugar-heavy snack or a processed food item like white bread, your body quickly digests simple carbohydrates into simple sugars — namely glucose. These glucose molecules are then rapidly absorbed into your bloodstream, causing a spike in your blood sugar," explains Dr. Saint Andre.
This blood sugar spike, if dramatic enough, is what causes that dreaded sugar hangover.
"Most people's bodies are excellent at regulating blood sugar levels, so blood sugar spikes are typically brief. But, if you eat a large amount of sugar or have a high carbohydrate meal, there can be a short period of time where you become hyperglycemic — meaning your blood sugar reaches high enough levels to cause unpleasant side effects."
This particular type of hyperglycemia is called postprandial hyperglycemia — or, more simply, after-meal hyperglycemia. It can take up to about two hours to develop, and symptoms of hyperglycemia include:
- Feeling foggy
- Blurred vision
- Increased thirst
In addition, as your body attempts to handle a blood sugar spike, it may overcorrect — resulting in a brief state of low blood sugar, called reactive hypoglycemia. This, in turn, can cause symptoms of lightheadedness, shakiness, irritability, sweating, anxiety and palpitations. If your blood sugar is allowed to fall dangerously low, loss of consciousness and even death can result.
Is a sugar hangover bad for you?
For most people, a sugar hangover isn't anything more than an immediate, temporary nuisance. But, long-term, the underlying cause of a sugar hangover can have consequences.
"The mild symptoms associated with postprandial hyperglycemia might not themselves be cause for concern, but the blood sugar spike that brings on those symptoms can affect your health over time if they occur frequently enough," warns Dr. Saint Andre.
At its healthiest, your body knows how to handle blood sugar spikes. In fact, it has specific sensors and mechanisms designed solely to keep your blood sugar levels in balance. Here's how it works:
As soon as your body senses your blood sugar is rising, your pancreas releases insulin — a hormone that helps your body turn glucose into energy and store any extra glucose away for later use. The end result is plenty of immediate energy, some energy reserves that you can tap into later if needed, and your blood sugar returning back to a normal level. And, for most people, this whole process happens fairly quickly.
"The issue, however, is that frequent blood sugar spikes can, over time, lead to insulin resistance, which might develop into type 2 diabetes," warns Dr. Saint Andre. "When your body becomes resistant to insulin, even if it's still able to make plenty of insulin, it's much harder to control your blood sugar and, unfortunately, this means your blood sugar is more likely to remain high for longer periods of time. If this persists, type 2 diabetes develops."
High blood sugar damages your blood vessels and, ultimately, leads to health conditions such as:
- Heart disease
- Kidney disease
- Vision problems
"What this means is that most people don't need to worry so much about the symptoms of postprandial hyperglycemia, but if you frequently engage in eating behaviors that spike your blood sugar, it could eventually lead to the development of type 2 diabetes," says Dr. Saint Andre. "People who have diabetes, on the other hand, will need to take postprandial hyperglycemia much more seriously because it's much easier for your blood sugar to rise to unhealthy levels and for more serious immediate and long-term consequences to occur."
Can you avoid a sugar hangover?
It's hard to choose a piece of fruit over a handful of cookies for dessert night after night. Just as it's hard to order the drip coffee instead of a pumpkin spice latte most days of the week. And it's really hard to avoid binging on those fun-size candy bars leftover from Halloween.
But, when you do decide to indulge, is a sugar hangover always a guarantee?
Dr. Saint Andre shares four tips for avoiding sugar hangovers:
1. Don't overdo it
It goes without saying, but we'll say it anyway: The most effective way to prevent a sugar hangover is to avoid overdoing it on the foods that are the most likely to cause a blood sugar spike — namely, added sugars and simple carbs.
"In a 2,000-calorie diet, only about 900 of your calories should come from carbohydrates. In addition, it's best if the majority of these carbohydrates are complex carbs, such as vegetables, whole grains and legumes, and not the simple carbs that can easily spike your blood sugar," says Dr. Saint Andre. "If you do decide to indulge, that's ok! Just know that doing so frequently can have long-term consequences."
2. Balance your meal
Foods high in sugar and/or simple carbs are more quickly digested, and the resulting glucose is more rapidly absorbed into your bloodstream. However, adding other nutrients to your meal can help slow this process down.
"If you know you're about to eat something that's high in sugar or simple carbs, adding in some fiber, protein or healthy fat can help your body more slowly absorb the resulting glucose — leading to a more gradual increase in your blood sugar rather than a blood sugar spike," explains Dr. Saint Andre.
3. Leverage the glycemic index
The term glycemic index gets tossed around a lot in relation to managing diabetes, but it's actually a really helpful tool for everyone to consider.
"Glycemic index is a measurement that can help you understand whether a carbohydrate raises your blood sugar rapidly or more gradually. To prevent a blood sugar spike, choose carbs that cause gradual increases in your blood sugar, rather than rapid ones," explains Dr. Saint Andre. "The lower the glycemic index, the more gradually the carb will raise your blood sugar. The higher the glycemic index, the likelier a carb is to cause a blood sugar spike."
4. Stay hydrated
Hyperglycemia is, essentially, an osmolality problem. Osmolality relates to how much substance is dissolved into another substance. In the case of high blood sugar, the osmolality problem is that there's too much sugar dissolved in your blood.
"When you have a higher concentration of glucose in your bloodstream than usual, your blood becomes hyperosmolar," says Dr. Saint Andre. "Being dehydrated can make it even easier for your blood to become hyperosmolar, since there's less fluid in your blood to help dilute the extra glucose."
This means that staying hydrated can increase your chances of keeping your blood sugar levels as low as possible while eating something high in sugar or simple carbs.