Sugar has a lot of impact on our physical health; one of the reasons we should choose non-toxic sweeteners, instead, if we absolutely have to eat something sweet. Things like heart disease, insulin resistance, weight gain, and Alzheimer’s and their links to sugar are pretty easy to find. But what impact does your sugar intake have on your mental health conditions? A growing body of evidence shows that it’s a lot more than you might think.
The Kind of Sugar Matters
‘Sugar’ is a general term, just like ‘estrogen’ is a general term. ‘Sugar’ describes any of the classes of soluble, crystalline, typically sweet-tasting carbohydrates obtained from plant sources and other living organisms.
So sugar is simply a carbohydrate, and carbohydrates is a class of fuel for your body. ‘Sugar’ itself isn’t bad. What’s bad is the unnatural, overly-processed form of sugar that’s so different from its original form the body isn’t able to break it down to use it. It is this sugar–the simple, added sugars like sucrose–that we are talking about, here.
Did you know there has never been research done that links depression to low serotonin? What has been shown to have a link to increased depression? High sugar intake. Medical News Today1 reported on a study done that showed a greater chance of depression among men with high sugar intakes. The option for the reverse to be the reason for the link–that those with poor mental states are more inclined to eat sugar–was also looked into. The same amount of sugar consumption was found in both those with good and bad mental health. This further lends itself to the idea that sugar is the cause for the link–not the original mental state.
Consuming too much processed sugar may lead to mood disorders and other chronic conditions like diabetes. On the contrary, a diet that consists of fruits, vegetables, fish, and other whole foods can significantly reduce the risk of depression.
Anika Knüppel from the UCL Institue of Epidemiology and Public health, the lead author of the paper, said the following:
Sweet food has been found to induce positive feelings in the short-term. People experiencing low mood may eat sugary foods in the hope of alleviating negative feelings. Our study suggests a high intake of sugary foods is more likely to have the opposite effect on mental health in the long-term.3
WebMD4 also points out that:
Research shows that sugar can be more addictive than hard drugs like cocaine.
How many more of us have more access to processed sugars than hard drugs? Answer: all of us. This is part of where the sugar cravings come from—an addiction to added sugars in things like soft drinks. Here is what Psychology Today5 says about the mental effects of addiction:
…there is an involuntary takeover of the brain that compromises decision-making and diminishes freedom of choice, making quitting difficult even in the face of desire to do so. What happens in addiction is that, through completely natural processes involved in all learning, the brain prunes nerve pathways of attention and motivation to preferentially notice, focus on, desire, and seek the substance. What starts out as a choice becomes, in a sense, a prison.
With a substance that has as many effects on the body and mind as sugar, being trapped in a prison of desire for sugar isn’t a good place to be.
In a 2008 study6 on rats, increased amounts of sugar followed by a time period without any for 28 days showed an increase in anxiety, and a decrease in dopamine production.
A 2009 study7 showed that there was a difference in anxiety and brain function when rats were fed sucrose–added sugars in things like sweet drinks, sodas, etc.–and honey–a more natural and antioxidant-rich glucose. Those that had the honey rather than the sucrose performed better and had less anxiety.
There are so many people with anxiety disorders, these days. One simple way to start trying to improve our brain health is to check our eating habits and put effort toward controlling our sweet tooth.
Yes, believe it or not, sugar can make schizophrenia worse. A 2004 study8 found:
A higher national dietary intake of refined sugar and dairy products predicted a worse 2-year outcome of schizophrenia. … The dietary predictors of outcome of schizophrenia and prevalence of depression are similar to those that predict illnesses such as coronary heart disease and diabetes, which are more common in people with mental health problems and in which nutritional approaches are widely recommended. Dietary intervention studies are indicated in schizophrenia and depression.
Inflammation may seem like more of a physical effect, but inflammation has a very real impact on brain function, too. Inflammation is a normal part of the immune system–it is part of what helps the body heal. Problems start to arise when the inflammation is chronic. All maladies the human body encounters stem from inflammation.
The hormones that impact mental health actually aren’t made in the brain, but elsewhere in the body. A good number of them are made and converted in the gut. Sugar feeds infections and inflammation. When those infections and inflammation are in the gut, it has a negative impact on the mental health hormones.
A UCLA study10 was published in 2012 that showed the effects of high-fructose corn syrup on the memory. Gomez-Pinilla “studied two groups of rats that each consumed a fructose solution as drinking water for six weeks. A second group also received omega-3 fatty acids in the form of flaxseed oil and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which protects against damage to the synapses — the chemical connections between brain cells that enable memory and learning.” The author of the paper reported that:
The DHA-deprived animals were slower, and their brains showed a decline in synaptic activity. Their brain cells had trouble signaling each other, disrupting the rats’ ability to think clearly and recall the route they’d learned six weeks earlier.
The DHA-deprived rats also developed signs of resistance to insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar and regulates synaptic function in the brain. A closer look at the rats’ brain tissue suggested that insulin had lost much of its power to influence the brain cells.
“Because insulin can penetrate the blood–brain barrier, the hormone may signal neurons to trigger reactions that disrupt learning and cause memory loss,” Gomez-Pinilla said.
Improving Mental Health
Healthcare is a huge aspect of most peoples’ lives, these days. We take meds to try to fix the challenges our bodies are experiencing, when we continue eating the very thing causing and worsening those challenges. Weight loss, major depression, and type 2 diabetes aren’t often thought to have much to do with each other, but all three–and so many other things–are only made worse by a high-sugar diet.
Improve your health by cutting the added, simple sugars in your diet. Cut down on the high sugar consumption and your body will thank you. We understand that it’s hard to break an addiction, which is why we have some delicious sugar-free recipes you and your family will love! Make it even easier on yourself by checking out these ways to reduce the sugar cravings.
For more information on how to set up your mental and physical health for success, contact a Wellness Way clinic, today!
- Too much sugar may harm men’s mental health: Medical News Today
- What to Know About Sugar and Depression: WebMD
- High sugar intake linked with poorer long-term mental health: UCL news
- What to Know About Sugar and Depression: WebMD
- Addiction and the Brain: Psychology Today
- After daily bingeing on a sucrose solution, food deprivation induces anxiety and accumbens dopamine/acetylcholine imbalance: PubMed
- The effects of long-term honey, sucrose, or sugar-free diets on memory and anxiety in rats: PubMed
- International variations in the outcome of schizophrenia and the prevalence of depression in relation to national dietary practices: an ecological analysis: PubMed
- This is your brain on sugar: UCLA study shows high-fructose diet sabotages learning, memory: UCLA Health