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.

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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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Good, Good, Good Nutrition, Part I: Foods to Eat to Help Manage Bipolar Disorder

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Credit to flickr.com user jrsnchzhrs. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Food is important. That’s undeniable. While there’s no specific diet that helps manage bipolar disorder, studies have shown that an unhealthy diet can trigger manic episodes. New research shows hat depression symptoms decline with a Mediterranean-style diet. So, what you put into your body is crucial. Although the foods that follow won’t cure bipolar disorder, they can help you feel better, making it easier to cope with mood episodes.

Omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids are largely used to manage heart disease, though some studies have suggested that they can help with mental health as well. According to a recent review by Peet and Stokes, “Epidemiological studies indicate an association between depression and low dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids, and biochemical studies have shown reduced levels of omega-3 fatty acids in red blood cell membranes in both depressive and schizophrenic patients.” This basically means that people who eat fewer omega-3 fatty acids tend to deal with more depressive symptoms. This is a big deal!

Other results have been more mixed, showing that there’s a lot more research that has to be done before omega-3s can be used to definitively treat bipolar disorder or depression.

Omega-3s can be found in:

  • fatty fish, like salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout, halibut, and sardines
  • flax seeds and their oil
  • eggs
  • soybeans
  • walnuts
  • wild rice

Magnesium

Preliminary studies suggest that magnesium is useful for reducing the symptoms of mania. Still others report that the vitamin is good for warding off depression and migraines. There’s a whole host of other dietary benefits for magnesium as well, such as keeping muscles and nerves functioning, regulating blood sugar, and treats hypertension. The recommended daily amount (RDA) is 420 milligrams (mg) for adult men and 320 mg for adult women.

Magnesium is found in:

  • almonds
  • avocado
  • beans
  • bran cereal
  • brown rice
  • cashews
  • chocolate
  • cereal (Shredded Wheat)
  • edamame (immature soybeans)

Selenium

Selenium is a trace element that’s essential for smooth brain function. The element helps stabilize moods. Deficiencies in selenium, of which adults need at least 55 micrograms (mcg) daily, have been linked to anxiety and depression.

Selenium is found in the following foods:

  • Brazil nuts
  • tuna
  • halibut
  • sardines
  • ham
  • shrimp
  • steak
  • turkey
  • beef liver

Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an amino acid which helps make melatonin and serotonin, which help you sleepy and happy, respectively. A recent study–the same one that showed magnesium can reduce mania symptoms–showed that tryptophan, too, can help mania. 

Tryptophan is often associated with Thanksgiving dinner, specifically turkey, but in reality, turkey only boasts as much of the amino acid as chicken. A pork chop has more, as does soybeans. Tryptophan can also be found in eggs, tofu, and cheese, so don’t worry if you don’t like turkey; you have plenty of options.

Probiotics

Probiotics are foods that contain live bacteria that is healthy for your gut. Research about the biome of our intestines is a hot topic. The microbes there have been shown in studies to release serotonin, which helps keep bipolar people on an even keel.

Probiotics can be found in:

  • yogurt
  • kefir
  • kombucha
  • sauerkraut
  • kimchi
  • miso

Dark Chocolate

One-and-a-half ounces of 70% dark chocolate daily is the recommended dose to lower stress hormones, according to a recent study. And who doesn’t like dark chocolate? However, be careful with your dose of chocolate, as cacao beans contain caffeine, and chocolate itself contains sugar, both of which are foods you want to avoid (see Part II).

Saffron

Saffron is a red spice shaped like a thread found in dishes from India. Studies have shown that saffron extract is as effective an antidepressant as Prozac. The spice is expensive on its own, however, so take care when filling the shopping cart and cooking with it. A little goes a long way.

In short, while there is no specific diet for bipolar disorder, incorporating these foods may help manage your manic and depressive episodes. However, foods are no replacement for a comprehensive treatment plan from your doctor. Experiment with diet, but keep to your psychiatrist’s recommendations. Happy eating!

Keep an eye out for Part II: Foods to Avoid.

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