How Does Sugar Affect Our Mental Health?
We’ve all known for most of our lives that sugar isn’t that great for us – no nutritional value, spikes in blood sugar, lots of calories. Science is starting to understand on a deeper level how it relates to mental health disorders specifically. Turns out this might be even more impactful that we thought on our overall health.
In a nutshell, sugar is one of the biggest contributors to inflammation in the body, at least in the average American diet. Inflammation = bad. Inflammation contributes to every health condition that may already be happening in the body: headaches, diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, etc. Increased inflammation because of diet can also cause chronic health conditions and worsen already existing chronic issues.
The Food For The Brain Foundation is a nonprofit that works to create awareness of how nutrition and mental health are related. And they explain this better than I can so…
“Eating lots of sugar is going to give you sudden peaks and troughs in the amount of glucose in your blood; symptoms that this is going on include fatigue, irritability, dizziness, insomnia, excessive sweating (especially at night), poor concentration and forgetfulness, excessive thirst, depression and crying spells, digestive disturbances and blurred vision. Since the brain depends on an even supply of glucose it is no surprise to find that sugar has been implicated in aggressive behavior, anxiety, and depression, and fatigue.
Lots of refined sugar and refined carbohydrates (meaning white bread, pasta, rice and most processed foods,) is also linked with depression because these foods not only supply very little in the way of nutrients but they also use up the mood enhancing B vitamins; turning each teaspoon of sugar into energy needs B vitamins. In fact, a study of 3,456 middle-aged civil servants, published in British Journal of Psychiatry found that those who had a diet which contained a lot of processed foods had a 58% increased risk for depression, whereas those whose diet could be described as containing more whole foods had a 26% reduced risk for depression.
Sugar also diverts the supply of another nutrient involved in mood – chromium. This mineral is vital for keeping your blood sugar level stable because insulin, which clears glucose from the blood, can’t work properly without it.”
But putting the information into regular practice can be trickier. Here are some suggestions:
1. Processed food means things your grandmother or great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Look for food without labels and advertisements. Just focus on incorporating a few more of those whole foods into your life. So instead of boxed mashed potatoes to add, buy some real potatoes to boil, mash and season them yourself.
2. Drink more water. And tea – green, black, white and herbal teas contain substances that are supportive of overall health. Try substituting one of your cups of coffee or sodas for a cup of tea a few times week. If you’re used to sweetening your tea, try stevia or monkfruit sweetener which won’t cause blood sugar spikes.
3. Try keeping a food journal to specifically track how you feel after eating certain foods. Note energy levels, how your stomach/GI system feels, headaches, and sleep quality. Same goes for what you’re drinking – how does it make you feel? Relaxed? Wired? Thirstier? Energized? Does it come with an energy crash after some time? It’s worthwhile to check in shortly after but also an hour or 2 later. Track any changes you implement as well. You’re the expert on yourself and only you can feel how food affects you.
4. Remember that your taste buds will change with time. Initially you’ll miss the sugar your body is used to but with time, naturally sweet foods will begin to taste sweeter to you.
Make some changes to your life to incorporate more mood boosting activities so you’re not looking for the mood boost from food (dancing, meditation, journaling, spending time in nature, getting enough sleep, hobbies).
For more information on this:
The Doctor’s Farmacy podcast by Dr Mark Hyman or reading his book The Ultramind Solution which specifically focuses on nutritional treatment for mental health disorders