What to Give Up For Lent? How Your Body Reacts to Alcohol, Sugar and Caffeine Withdrawal

Each year, those who observe Lent select something to abstain from for 40 days. When it comes to sugar, caffeine and alcohol, cravings may not be the only challenge people face, as a sudden lack of the addictive dietary items can affect the body and mind.

Dr. Genevieve Brauning, a doctor at the Novant Health SouthPark Family Physicians, told Newsweek that suddenly cutting caffeine, sugar or alcohol out of a person's diet could lead to withdrawal-like symptoms.

"The acute withdrawal symptoms from addictive substances like caffeine and alcohol typically last three to seven days," Brauning said. "It appears that sugar follows a similar pattern. But the cravings can last weeks, months, and even years."

The severity of the withdrawal symptoms directly correlates to the amount of sugar or caffeine a person consumes on a regular basis. So, a person who usually has a lot of caffeine in their diet and suddenly stops drinking coffee will likely experience worse withdrawal symptoms than someone who drinks a minimal amount.

For those who plan on giving up sugar for lent, it's possible they could experience fatigue, headaches, irritability, insomnia and intense cravings.

"Sugar is known to activate 'reward centers' in the brain that are similar to the effects of addictive drugs," Brauning explained.

lent 2019 what to give up sugar caffeine alcohol
Cakes are displayed in a bakery on Chinese New Year in Chinatown on February 5 in London. Many people give up sugar for Lent, which can have side effects including fatigue and headaches. Jack Taylor/Getty Images

The brain, according to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, registers pleasures including drugs and sugar, in the same way. In the "brain's reward center," pleasures are associated with the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. When dopamine interacts with glutamate, it can transform the desire of liking something to wanting it, therefore creating a need to consume the pleasure.

Those who opt out of caffeine may experience similar symptoms as those who give up sugar, including headaches and fatigue. They may also feel drowsy and have decreased mental clarity.

Withdrawal symptoms aren't reserved for those who go cold turkey. Brauning said reducing caffeine intake by just one cup of coffee per day can lead to headaches and other symptoms.

Whereas sugar and caffeine can usually be handled without medical intervention, Brauning advised regular and heavy alcohol users to consult a doctor before doing anything. Without a proper alcohol cessation plan, a sudden lack of alcohol can lead to serious medical complications and even be deadly.

"Alcohol withdrawal is more complex [than sugar or caffeine withdrawal] and can range from mild symptoms such as anxiety, shakiness, and insomnia to severe life-threatening symptoms including seizures," Brauning said.

While giving up sugar, caffeine and especially alcohol can be a trying task, Brauning said it can have lasting, positive effects. People turn to a variety of external sources to any number of symptoms, including treat anxiety, stress and sadness. Without those sources, people turn to healthy behaviors.

"These substances can mask our symptoms temporarily and give us brief relief," Brauning explained. "Eliminating these substances enables people to confront these feelings and engage in healthy behaviors of self-care including adequate sleep, relaxation, meditation and exercise.

Lent starts Ash Wednesday. It ends on April 18, the Friday before Easter, also known as Good Friday.