How Sugar May Harm Your Mental Health

Sugar, especially refined white sugar which has been processed, inflates waistlines and contributes to obesity. But, while some studies have shown that sugar may have a detrimental effect on the mood, not a whole lot of research has been done on sugar’s effects on mental health.

In a past post, Good, Good, Good Nutrition, part II: Foods to Avoid When Managing Bipolar Disorder, we covered how sugar can cause wild mood swings in bipolar patients. And how obesity can make some bipolar medications ineffective, especially if the weight is gained around the middle. But there are other ways sugar harms mental health.

Let’s dig in.

Addictive Properties

The addictive properties of sugar have been studied in recent years, though the research is still controversial. But anyone who’s craving a chocolate fix can understand how additive sugar is. Sugar and actual drugs both flood the brain with dopamine, a feel-good chemical which changes the brain over time. Among people who binge eat, the sight of a milkshake activated the same reward centers of the brain as cocaine, according to a Yale University study. Speaking of cocaine, rats actually prefer sugar water to the hard drug. And according to a 2007 study, rats who were given fats and sugar to eat demonstrated symptoms of withdrawal when the foods were taken away.

sugar
A spoonful of sugar on a black background. Credit to flickr.com user Gunilla G. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Cognitive Effects

Sugar may also affect your ability to learn and remember things. Six weeks of drinking a fructose solution similar to soda caused the rats taking it to forget their way out of a maze, according to a University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) study. In the same study, rats who ate a high-fructose diet that also included omega-3 fatty acids found their way out of the maze even faster than the controls, who ate a standard diet for rats. The increased-sugar diet without omega 3s caused insulin resistance in the rats, which leads to diabetes and damaged brain cells crucial for memory.

Depression

Countries with high-sugar diets experience a high incidence of depression. Mood disorders may also be affected by the highs and lows of sugar consumption and subsequent crashes. In schizophrenic patients, a study has shown that eating a lot of sugar links to an increased risk of depression.

The researchers behind the study produced a couple of theories to explain the link. Sugar suppresses the activation of a hormone called BDNF, which is found at low levels in people with schizophrenia and clinical depression. Sugar also contributes to chronic inflammation, which impacts the immune system and brain. Studies show that inflammation can cause depression.

Anxiety

Sugar consumption doesn’t cause anxiety, but it does appear to worsen anxiety symptoms. Sugar also causes the inability to cope with stress. Rats who ate sugar and then fasted showed symptoms of anxiety, according to a 2008 study. In a study in the following year, rats who ate sugar (as opposed to honey) were more likely to suffer anxiety. While you cannot cure anxiety through a change in diet, you can help the body cope with stress and minimize symptoms if you avoid sugar.

The Bottom Line

The good news is, people are consuming less sugar now that the risks to eating it are clearer. A decade ago, Americans ate sugar for 18% of their daily calories, but today that’s dropped to 13%. The more we learn about the human body and how our choices in foods affect us, the more we can tailor our diets to maximize the benefits to our health and minimize the risks.

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