When feeling depressed or anxious, it’s commonplace to turn to sweets for comfort. Of course, we all know using sugar to enhance mood can lead to weight gain and other chronic disease. But research also shows sugar has a powerful effect on the brain, worsening symptoms of depression and anxiety. Even for someone without a mental health diagnosis, sugar has a negative effect on mood, causing fatigue, crankiness and an overall feeling of bleh. Learn the not so sweet truth about sugar and the brain.
When I was a freshman in college, I had my first panic attack. The previous night, I had stayed up late studying for a Biology exam. After complaining to a hallmate how nervous I was, she suggested I go outside and smoke a cigarette with her to calm my nerves. Being 18, an age generally known for making smart decisions, I took her up on the offer.
With the first puff, I was instantly overwhelmed with a wave of fear. My heart started pounding out of my chest and a wave of nausea came over me. The next thing I remember, I was curled up in a ball on the floor crying while my roommate comforted me.
It was awful.
Luckily, panic attacks were not a regular occurrence for me, as they are for many people. However, general, run-of-the-mill anxiety was. Until a few years ago, I ignored it, not because I was lazy or didn’t care about my health, but because I thought it was normal. And in a way, it is. Anxiety disorder is the most common mental health disorder, effecting 18% of the population.
When I was working at the VA, a place where disorders of mental health are sadly common, the psychology major in me started to research how diet affects the brain. Anxiety, depression and PTSD were a huge barrier for my patients and I wanted to see how a dietitian could help. That’s when I learned about sugar and the brain.
There are many ways sugar disturbs the brain’s normal functioning. The main detrimental effect is through inflammation. Eating sugar triggers an inflammatory response and inflammation has been linked to depression and anxiety (along with other chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes). Studies have shown inflammation skyrockets during depressive episodes and in anxiety disorders. Other studies have induced depressive symptoms in healthy people by triggering inflammation. Makes sense when you realize inflammation occurs all over the body, brain included.
Sugar also affects the brain through the hormones that impact mood. Eating too much sugar causes the body to release more cortisol, a stress hormone (linked to weight gain as well). Sugar also triggers the release of serotonin, a “feel-good” hormone that induces a feeling of well-being…that’s why Ben and Jerry become your best friend after a rough day. It’s an effective stress reliever, for a little while. As blood sugar levels eventually crash, so do serotonin levels, causing you to feel worse than before, and probably craving sweets again!
If you’ve been diagnosed with anxiety, your body is especially sensitive and perceptive of changes. Spikes in blood sugar, hormonal changes and fatigue caused by eating too much sugar can trigger anxiety and even panic attacks.
Even for someone without a mental health disorder, sugar has a powerful effect on the brain and mood. You don’t need science to know how too much sugar can cause you to feel like crap – chances are you’ve learned that from experience!
There’s a reason desserts spelled backwards is stressed.
A few years ago when I decided to really tackle my anxiety, one of the changes I made was to get serious about sugar. For a month, I eliminated all added sugar. It was tough, but within a few days I started to feel my head clear. I stopped using artificial sweeteners and kept only unrefined sugars in the house. Instead of having prepackaged sweets on hand, I made a goal to only have homemade sweets with the exception of special occasions. After developing a yoga and mindfulness practice, I can almost immediately feel anxiety start to creep in after overdoing it on sugar. My clients who have made similar changes tell me the same.
I credit that change with saving my life. Sounds exaggerated, but if you’ve ever battled anxiety, then you understand.
When you put all the research together, it’s clear sugar is a toxic substance, capable of destroying physical and mental health. There’s a reason America, where added sugar is almost it’s own food group, has some of the highest rates of anxiety and depression. In my research and experience, the relationship between added sugar and the brain is more powerful than for any other nutrient.
But that doesn’t change the fact that cookies are kind of amazing.
It’s hard to put into words the sheer joy I feel while savoring a dense, fudgy brownie or a chocolate chip cookie straight out of the oven. I didn’t mind that I felt a pretty lethargic and bleh the day after a girls night at our local dessert bar when we all
shared each ordered our own slices of the exact same cake and dug in. When you reserve sugar for high quality sweets and occasions that are truly worth it, I honestly feel the negative relationship between sugar and the brain is negated by the bliss you feel while savoring it.
Finding balance is key, but it’s difficult to do without help and guidance. All of the other programs, books and guides I’ve seen about sugar treat it like an illicit substance, completely ignoring the fact that sweets can contribute to a healthy, fulfilled life – if consumed in a mindful, balanced way. They encourage abstinence rather than nurturing a health relationship with sweets.
That’s why I created the Tame Your Sweet Tooth Guide, available exclusively through my nutrition shop. It takes you through the same process I use with my clients to break their dependency on sugar and be able to savor the occasional sweet, guilt free! This guide is all about eating less and enjoying more.
The Tame Your Sweet Tooth Guide includes the following handouts:
THE SUGAR RESET // A sugar reset is not a detox – it’s a 2-4 week period without added sugar, which recalibrates your taste buds preference for sweets. This handout also teaches how to deal with the emotional triggers for sweets, how to design an environment where sweets are less available and how to decide if a sweet is truly worth it.
THE SUGAR ENCYCLOPEDIA // What’s the difference between added sugars and natural sugars? Are unrefined sugars healthy? This handout makes sense of the many terms for sugar and teaches you the healthiest ways to sweeten your food.
DECODING THE SUGAR LABEL // How much sugar is in your food? This handout takes you through a simple process to determine how much sugar you’re actually eating and explains the recommended daily limits in an easy to remember way.
SUGAR POCKET GUIDE // Decode the ingredients list with this handy guide that lists the many names for sugar.
LOW AND NO SUGAR SWEET TREATS // A recipe book with 16 of my favorite low sugar and no added sugar treats! There’s a few oldies but goodies from the blog, as well as all new recipes like pumpkin cookie dough bites, coconut cream s’mores, and fudgy blackberry brownie squares.
Through my practice and personal experience, I know you can reclaim your life and happiness by breaking your dependence on sugar. Purchase the Tame Your Sweet Tooth Guide for $15 through my nutrition shop. I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback, so please feel free to email or comment!
Have you struggled with a negative relationship with sugar? How has sugar impacted your life?