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Is sugar bad for you? When it’s found naturally, like the fructose in an apple or banana, and eaten in moderation, probably not. But when we’re talking about added sugar, the answer is a definitive “yes.” From your head to your toes, sugar can impact your entire body in some seriously unpleasant ways, and the potential consequences encompass much more than a few extra pounds.
In recent years, the over-consumption of added sugar has been implicated in heart disease, type-2 diabetes, dry and wrinkly skin, kidney failure, and more. And now, we’re beginning to learn about sugar and its negative impact on the brain and overall mental health. In fact, excessive consumption of sugar has been directly linked to major mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, and dementia.
For far too long, sweet foods have been promoted as happy, “feel-good” foods; indeed, when you eat sugar it sets off a cascade in your brain which results in the release of dopamine, but that fleeting shot of happiness is just that, and the damage it can cause to your mental health is insidious and long lasting, and decidedly not happy.
Depression is a major health problem, with some experts predicting it will become the second cause of morbidity in the world by the year 2020. We know that what we eat can significantly impact our mental health in both positive and negative ways, so what types of food are thought to contribute to depression? Namely, sugars and refined carbs.
An investigation conducted at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas looked at sugar consumption rates and how they correlated with the annual rates of major depression in a variety of locations. They found that in six different countries there was “a highly significant correlation between sugar consumption and the annual rate of depression.” Additionally, a recent long-term study published in 2017 links sugar consumption from sweet drinks and food to an increased chance of mood disorders, particularly in male subjects.
Diets high in refined sugars are harmful to your brain because they promote inflammation and oxidative stress. Conversely, eating well can actually protect our brains from mental health problems. Research has shown that eating a healthy whole food-based diet like the Mediterranean diet may actually reduce the inflammatory, vascular, and metabolic processes that increase clinical depression risk.
Anxiety is another disabling mental health condition that is accompanied by depression in 40 to 67 percent of cases. When you consume high-sugar food and drinks, your blood sugar skyrockets only to crash shortly thereafter. This not only makes you feel physically lousy, but it can also make the symptoms of mood disorders like anxiety even worse. And when you are on a blood sugar roller-coaster, it makes it harder for your body to cope with stress, makes mood swings more likely, and makes it that much harder to get anxiety symptoms under control.
Scientific research has demonstrated how bingeing on sugar leads to anxiety in animal subjects. Other animal research published in the journal Physiology & Behavior demonstrates how sucrose (a form of sugar) likely affects the brain differently than a healthier sweetener like antioxidant-rich honey. Overall, the subjects fed honey showed significantly less anxiety at all stages of aging compared to those fed sucrose. In addition, the honey-fed animals displayed better spatial memory over the course of the 12-month long study.
Eating a “Western-style diet” (which typically includes lots of sweets, refined grains, fast food, fried foods, processed meats, and a reduction of fruit and vegetable intake) has been independently associated with an increased risk for the development of both anxiety and depression. This type of diet also leads to clear negative effects on the mental health of today’s teenagers. Research has shown that the quality of teenagers’ diets in adolescence may even affect their mental health for the rest of their lives.
To maintain healthy blood sugar levels, decrease inflammation, encourage healthy neurotransmitter function, and improve anxiety symptoms, stay away from refined sugar and its common sources, including baked goods and sweetened drinks. Avoiding processed foods in general is another one of the most commonly recommended natural remedies for anxiety.
Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of symptoms caused by disorders that affect the brain, including Alzheimer’s disease and lesser-known forms of dementia like Lewy body dementia. A high-sugar diet and high blood glucose levels have been linked to an increased risk of this group of conditions.
Diabetes is a known risk factor for dementia, but a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine examined whether higher glucose levels raise the risk for dementia in non-diabetics. The result? Researchers found that both diabetics, as well as those without diabetes, had an increased risk for dementia if they had higher-than-average glucose levels the five years before their dementia diagnosis.
A more recent longitudinal study published in the journal Diabetologia in 2018 tracked the blood sugar levels, diabetes status, and cognitive function of 5,189 people over a 10-year period. The researchers found that people with high blood sugar had a faster rate of cognitive decline than those with normal blood sugar, and this was true whether or not their blood-sugar level technically qualified them as diabetic. So overall, the higher the blood sugar, the faster the cognitive decline.
Our brains do need glucose to function, but getting too much sugar in our diets is a problem. As research has shown, a diet high in refined sugar decreases the production of a vital brain chemical known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF plays a key role in the survival and growth of neurons, and it serves as a neurotransmitter modulator while also playing a role in neuronal plasticity, which is essential for learning and memory. The less BDNF found in the brain, the harder it is to learn and remember things. So it makes sense that too much sugar in the diet and
high blood sugar levels can have a negative impact on the brain and contribute to an increased risk for serious memory loss problems like dementia.
It’s important to note that even if you’re diligent about checking labels, you may be confused by the fact that sugar hides behind more than 50 other names, including dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, or high-fructose corn syrup. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons, or 100 calories, a day of sugar for most women, and no more than 9 teaspoons, or 150 calories, a day for most men.
It’s normal to get some sugar in the diet, but it’s the added, refined sugars found in so many processed foods that are causing many of our modern-day health problems, including mental health issues. So the next time your sweet tooth is rearing its head, ask yourself: Is the brief moment of satisfaction really worth the long-term danger to your mental health?
If you want to kick your sugar addiction and lower your risk for depression, anxiety, and dementia, there are some simple steps you can take, starting
today. Remember, small changes add up to big benefits.
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