Giving Up Sugar: How and Why I Did It

This month, I’m writing about some resolutions I’ve made in the past that have changed my life for the better. Up this week: Why I cut cane sugar out of my diet six years ago.

I didn’t cut out sugar to lose weight or to detoxify. I did it because I was desperate. Soon after I graduated from college, I started having panic attacks. I don’t mean “panic attack” casually, like when people use the term to say they’re overwhelmed and maybe have an eye twitch or something. I mean my body shuts down — my vision goes black, I get clammy and shaky, I can’t breathe and my thoughts are spinning so fast that I’m incapacitated. I mean the kind of panic attacks that send people to the hospital because they think that they’re dying.

I started therapy, which helped a lot, but I still had attacks. I thought nutrition could be a factor (my body was going haywire in some other ways, too), so I saw a doctor. He ended up being so non-helpful that I had a full panic attack in the parking lot of St. Vincent’s, convinced I was going to live in a prison of anxiety for the rest of my life … it wasn’t a happy moment.

I wasn’t convinced that food was a part of my problem, but I at least wanted to know if it was so I could rule it out. There wasn’t a lot of information about elimination diets back then (at least not that I had access to), but I basically created my own version of that, first fasting from all food, then adding it back in one thing at a time. Initially, I cut out gluten, nuts, dairy, sugar, caffeine and alcohol (I was also a vegetarian, so meat was already eliminated). I thought my issue would be gluten or dairy, because those were the hot allergens at the time, but those didn’t affect me at all.

The culprits, as it turned out, were sugar and caffeine. And not just any sugar — I can tolerate almost any natural sugar except sugarcane. I eat fruit. Maple syrup, molasses, coconut sugar, and even limited amounts of honey, are all great. Sugars that have been fermented, like the ones in beer, wine and kombucha, are also fine. I can’t have high fructose corn syrup (although I think probably no one should), and I can’t have white sugar or raw sugar or cane juice.

I’ve tried to re-introduce sugar into my diet a few different times throughout the years in small ways to see if I can tolerate it again. I usually have an initial sugar rush that makes me a act a little strange (I get “crazy eyes” as my former coworker Sri used to say), and then I feel normal. I don’t get panic attacks right away. But every time I’ve introduced it again, I’ve started having panic episodes within weeks. I don’t know why that is. My guess is that I’m prone to anxiety and panic anyway, and because sugar creates a rush and then a crash, it’s just exacerbating a problem I’m already prone to.

A lot of people who’ve given up sugar are sort of judgmental about telling others to do it, too. I don’t feel that way. I do feel like my life is a lot better without sugar, though, and I think giving it up can be so life-changing that it’s probably worth trying for anyone who struggles with anxiety or panic. I also believe, though, that’s it’s important for each individual to find what works for you and your life. For example, the careful reader will note that I mentioned both sugar AND caffeine affect my anxiety, but I still drink coffee every day (I’m drinking it right now). That’s because, in my life, sugar has almost no benefit (the one benefit is that it tastes awesome), and it has a big drawback. Caffeine, on the other hand, does make me more prone to anxiety, but it doesn’t give me actual panic attacks. And caffeine also has a strong antidepressant effect in my brain (and in the brains of many other people). For me, that mood boost is worth the anxiety trade-off, so I limit caffeine instead of cutting it out entirely. That doesn’t mean it’s the right decision for everyone; it’s just what I’m choosing at this point in my life.

Later this week, I’ll write about the actual transition from sugar, and I’d love to answer some questions if you have them. You can comment them here on the blog, or find my Instagram and either DM me or use the question box to ask me more. I’m no expert — I hope that’s obvious. I’m not a doctor, and I’m not really even trying to give advice here. I’m just trying to share my story in case it helps anyone else to navigate their own.

Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist, a book about buying from locally owned stores and cofounder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Currently, she works as Communications Director at Infomedia, a web development company in Birmingham, Alabama. Find her as @crollwagen on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and most other social media platforms.

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