The first time I tried to meditate, I had a panic attack. It was back in 2010, during a meeting with Andy Puddicombe, founder of the then-fledgling company Headspace. This was way before the Headspace app would go on to be downloaded by millions of curious would-be meditators. But there was already a buzz about Andy, and, as features editor of the UK Sunday Times Style magazine, I was interested to hear what he had to say about this ancient practice, and how it was relevant to modern life.

Ditch Sugar, Get SpiritualA Morning Cappuccino Fix Gone Awry

Right before our meeting, I’d had my regular mid-morning “treat”: a triple-shot cappuccino with two sachets of raw sugar. I hadn’t slept properly the night before, either. For the previous six months or so, I’d been steadily waking up between 3 and 4 am, my heart jumping in my chest, my mind a maze of panic-stricken future-tripping. Often unable to go back to sleep, I’d drag myself out of bed, drizzle maple syrup on a bowl of oatmeal, and crawl to the office in a daze—counting down to that cappuccino.

And that morning, with Andy’s soothing voice guiding my colleague and I through a simple mindfulness practice, I felt it all catch up with me: an overwhelming wave of exhaustion that swept through my being, leaving me weightless, and reeling from a nauseating sense of vertigo. Mortified, heart pounding, I had to flutter my eyes open to regain my equilibrium. Wasn’t meditation supposed to be relaxing? What the hell was wrong with me?

The Diagnosis and The Prescription

I got my answer when, surprise, I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue not long after. I mentioned my “symptoms” during an interview with a nutritionist, and was promptly instructed to cut both coffee and sugar from my diet. As much as this sounded unbearable, I figured I had nothing to loose. And as it turned out, making this simple adjustment (or not so simple, depending how attached you are to society’s most readily available consciousness-altering substances) would be the beginning of my spiritual journey.

Within two weeks, I was sleeping through the night. My energy levels, and with them my optimism and enthusiasm for life, were flying high. My job hadn’t become any less stressful, but I felt I had the resilience to handle whatever life threw at me—as if there was now a buffer between me (what I might now identify as my spirit) and the external circumstances of my life. If this sense of equanimity was supposedly the goal of a regular meditation practice, then nixing my daily sugar fix had had a similar effect.

What Sugar Does in the Body

Why? The scientific answer is that just like, say, alcohol and cocaine, sugar over-stimulates the pleasure receptors in the brain. Each time we eat sugar, it “hijacks the brain’s reward pathway,” says neuroscientist Jordan Gaines Lewis, PhD, making us more likely to reach for more sugar to experience a similar buzz. The ensuing drop in blood sugar levels can lead to irritability, mood swings, brain fog and fatigue, which makes us more vulnerable to life’s stressors.

Sugar’s Connection to Life Force Energy

What has that got to do with being on the spiritual path? Coming at spirituality from a completely non-secular stance, I might also define the spirit as simply our life force. In yoga, it’s prana. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the chi (or qi) is the Universal source energy that, once embodied, pulses our every thought, word and deed into being. For me, a “spiritual practice” is any practice that empowers and connects us to this life force energy.

Sugar, deliciously seductive and super accessible, facilitates a fake and utterly unsustainable jolt of this “life force” energy. And once we come to rely on it, we’re way less likely to seek more challenging routes to experiencing true aliveness. Like commit to a regular yoga or meditation practice. Deal with outstanding emotional issues. Engage in only relationships that truly light us up, or with work that feels like a valuable expression of our spirit/life force.

Remove sugar from the equation (same applies to other “energy-giving” substances, most of which are addictive for the same reasons), and bam, we begin to re-establish our connection to our own inner, and utterly cosmic, power supply.

Ditch Sugar, Get Spiritual

Photo: Courtesy Ruby Warrington

This was certainly my experience. Looking back, the sense of self-generated euphoria I experienced after giving up sugar—and the understanding that this was how life was supposed to feel—was the fuel for me seeking a career path that felt truly fulfilling. I went on to create conscious-lifestyle platform The Numinous, a journey I write about in Material Girl, Mystical World, as well as my offshoot projects Club SÖDA, an event series for the “sober curious,” and Moon Club, a mentoring program for spiritual activists.

Ruby’s 6 Tips for Sugar-Free Living

Curious about living sugar-free, but not convinced you can kick the habit? Here are six tips to empower you on your path:

1. Go cold turkey.

As with any addictive substance, addressing both physical and emotional cravings requires a sustained period of total abstinence. Try two weeks minimum, and get familiar with your triggers.

2. Cut the coffee, too.

For me, coffee and sugar are a dastardly double act—the inevitable crash from the former creating major yearnings for the later (i.e., 4 pm cookie cravings).

3. Ditto alcohol.

Since also giving up booze, I’ve realized that most of my alcohol cravings are actually sugar cravings.

4. Sub in cinnamon.

Once your taste buds have recovered, this delicious spice will taste as sweet as syrup on your morning oatmeal.

5. Meditate.

Yep, turns out this truly is the key to developing the mental, emotional and spiritual buffer between you (your spirit) and the trials we often use substances to help us power through.

6. Don’t expect it to be easy.

Because guess what, life isn’t easy, and it’s not supposed to be. Sugar might make it seem a little sweeter, but buy into this and you’re basically living a lie. Truly thriving—mind, body and spirit—means getting comfy with the discomfort of being human, and choosing to embrace it—thorns and all. This to me is the essence of being on the spiritual path. Are you in?

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About the author

Ruby Warrington is a British journalist and author, currently living in Brooklyn, NY. Formerly Features Editor on the UK Sunday Times Style magazine, in 2013 she launched The Numinous, a conscious lifestyle platform that bridges the gap between the mystical and the mainstream. Ruby works regularly with brands on a consultancy basis, while her writing features in publications on both sides of the Atlantic. Her first book, Material Girl Mystical World, is out with Harper Collins in May 2017. Meanwhile, other projects include “sober curious” event series Club SÖDA NYC, and Moon Club, a monthly mentoring program for spiritual activists.