The Emotional and Mental Dangers of Sugar
By: Kathy Best, October 29, 2018
Most people are aware that eating too much sugar and processed foods can increase your risk of physical health problems including obesity(1), diabetes, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance(2), and fatty liver disease. Did you also know that a high sugar diet can adversely affect your mental health too? Multiple studies have linked high-sugar consumption to depression, addiction, learning, memory and poor quality of life. Regular table sugar(3), high fructose corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, glucose, lactose, maltose, maltodextrin, raw sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar, agave syrup, date sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, and artificial sweeteners like Splenda, Sweet ‘n Low, Equal, and others, may contribute to mental health problems.
The continuous rush of high blood sugar followed by the inevitable crash may heighten mood disorders symptoms. Research(4) from the National Library of Medicine has tied liberal sugar consumption to increased risk of depression(5). Individuals with schizophrenia(6) experience severe symptoms. Two theories explain the link. First, sugar suppresses the hormone(7)BDNF which is low in people with depression and schizophrenia. Second, sugar is a root cause of chronic inflammation(8,) which adversely impacts the immune system, the brain(10) and many other systems in the body. Chronic inflammation has also has been associated with depression. “In 2002, a study of overall sugar consumption per person in six different countries (Canada, France, Germany, Korea, New Zealand, and the United States) – published by Dr. Arthur Westover, from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas – implicated sugar as a factor in higher rates of major depression.” – (9)(Yella Hewings-Martin PhD, 2017)
A controversial, yet growing body of evidence indicates the addictive capacity of sugar. Drugs(12) and, to a lesser extent, sugar along with processed junk foods flood the brain with the happy chemical dopamine(13), which, over time changes brain function. Yale University researchers(14) discovered that just the sight of a milkshake activated the same response in the brain as cocaine(15) among people with addictive eating behaviors. A 2008 study published in the Nat’l Library of Medicine showed classic addiction symptoms17 including increased tolerance and withdrawal were witnessed in lab rats when the sugar was taken away. A 2013 research article(16) also published in the Nat’l Library of Medicine indicated that rats actually prefer sugar to cocaine.
Learning and Memory
Sugar may also impair cognitive(18) skills including learning and memory. Two animal studies(19) by the University of Southern California and UCLA concluded that six weeks of consuming a fructose solution (similar to soda) caused the rats to forget their way out of a maze. The high sugar diet triggered insulin resistance, which damaged the brain cell communication that powers learning and memory.
The S.A.D. (Standard American Diet), full of sugar and hydrogenated fat, may not necessarily cause anxiety(20), but it does contribute to, or worsen, anxiety symptoms and damage the body’s capacity to manage stress(21). Sugar can produce blurry vision, fatigue, and difficulty thinking, all of which may be interpreted as signs of a panic attack(22), thereby increasing worry and fear. A sugar high and subsequent crash can cause shaking and tension, which can make anxiety worse. Research has established a correlation between sugar consumption and anxiety. Two studies done in 2008(23) and 2009(24) found that rats who binged on sugar displayed anxiety and were more likely to suffer from anxiety.
Our bodies were never intended to process the amount of sugar that has become normal in the average American diet. The American Heart Association recommends limiting intake to 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men. To clarify that, there are 4.2 grams of sugar in every teaspoon. A 12 ounce can of Coca-Cola(25) contains 9.28 teaspoons of sugar, while the average 8 ounce glass of sweet tea(26) contains 6 teaspoons. A typical commercial chocolate cake(27) has approximately 6 teaspoons of sugar per 1/8 slice of an 18oz cake. A Starbucks Grande Café Latte(28) with 2% milk has about 4 teaspoons of sugar. Tropicana Pure Premium 100% Orange Juice No Pulp(28) (8 ounces) has 5.25 teaspoons of sugar. Yoplait Original Yogurt Strawberry Banana(28) has 6.42 teaspoons of sugar. A Burger King Whopper(29) has 3 teaspoons of sugar. McDonalds Bacon Egg and Cheese McGriddle(29) has 3.5 teaspoons of sugar. A small container of Campbell’s Tomato Soup(29) has 3.5 teaspoons of sugar. Mixed drinks(30) can have anywhere from 1 teaspoon to over 7 teaspoons per drink. While beer has no added sugar, it’s carbohydrate content is processed like sugar by the body, so a light beer which has about 6 grams of carbs and a regular beer which has 12 grams should be thought of as having 1.5 and 3 teaspoons each respectively.
Remember that sugar from processed foods, alcohol, and other drinks are all responsible for the adverse effects on our physical and mental health. Sugar is added to just about every packaged food and drink as well as canned fruits and vegetables, sauces, condiments, and restaurant meals like salads dressings, sandwiches, appetizers, and pasta sauces. If you’re craving something sweet to eat, try grabbing a couple of dates, a banana, some fresh grapes, (especially the purple ones), watermelon, pineapple, a red apple, oranges, or just about any other fresh fruit. The sugar in fresh fruit does not have the same detrimental effects due to the vitamins, nutrients, and fiber that help the body process the natural sugar efficiently.