Is Sugar Making You Depressed?

Posted November 3, 2015

If you remember the old ad campaign of two eggs being fried with the message, “this is your brain on drugs”, today we can re-create it using sugar as the substitute. It sounds extreme, but the average Canadian consumes the equivalent of 26 teaspoons in a day. Here’s the kicker, it’s not only adding inches to your waistline, but sending your mood on a rollercoaster.

This is your brain on sugar: Once sugar (aka glucose) is ingested – whether it’s in the form of a donut or a high carb dinner – insulin is released. Immediately, it begins to direct the glucose in your bloodstream. Unlike fat cells, the brain can’t store glucose, so this simple sugar is readily burned up upon use (a process that speeds up during times of stress, such as exams, or even during concentration tasks, such as writing this article). Considering your brain cells need twice the energy of other cells in your body, it’s no surprise then, that your noggin is extremely sensitive to changing blood sugar levels.

Your body also releases endorphins such as dopamine and serotonin to accompany this sugar rush, so you will initially feel happier, and perhaps even calmer. However, these receptor sites slow production to regulate the same endorphins that had you feeling so good, causing a crash in mood and even depression. And so the cycle begins… as we reach for more sugar (sound familiar?). In fact, patients who were treated for both Type 2 diabetes and depression at the same time achieve better results, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/01/120110093559.htm). This is one of the many reasons that I include dietary changes for every patient that comes into my office with concerns of depression and/or mood swings.

The sweet tooth unveiled: What goes up (in this case, blood sugar) must come down. Sleepiness right after a sugar rich meal is a classic symptom of reduced insulin sensitivity (which down the road leads to diabetes), along with a dip in mood and energy. I find most patients in my practice with high insulin have low levels of serotonin—the “happy” hormone that controls our mood, sleep patterns, self-esteem, ability to make decisions, and cravings. According to research from Princeton University, “food addiction” evolves as a result of changes in brain pathways. Sugar causes the release of the hormone dopamine in the brain—the same response activated by addictive drugs. These chemical adaptations cause changes in dopamine release over time. In this particular study, rats actually became sugar dependent, paving the way for theories that sugar can be physiologically addictive. The rats even experienced ‘withdrawals’ through low levels of dopamine and anxiety. They displayed chattering of teeth and were reluctant to leave their homes…. Except if it was to get more sugar. It’s not hard to believe then that to brain scans, sugar can be as addictive as cocaine (http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/researcher-sugar-addictive-cocaine-obesity-diabetes-cancer-heart-disease-article-1.1054419#ixzz2Y1Q1ylR4).

The proof is in the (sugar filled) pudding: New research suggests that drinking sweetened beverages, even diet drinks, are associated with an increased risk of depression. People who drank more than four cans or cups per day of soda were 30 percent more likely to develop depression than those who drank no soda. Those who drank four cans of fruit punch per day were about 38 percent more likely to develop depression than those who did not drink sweetened drinks (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130108162135.htm). Not to mention that these not-so-sweet delectable are often lacking in essential nutrients and healthy brain fuel. Not surprisingly, a study of over 3400 middle-aged civil servants, published in British Journal of Psychiatry found that those who had a diet which contained a lot of processed foods – ranging from desserts to refined grains – had a 58% increased risk for depression, whereas those whose diet could be described as containing more whole foods – including veggies, fruits and fish – had a 26% reduced risk for depression (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2801825/). So what you eat affects not only how you look, but how you think.
Bottom line: If you find your mood as predictable as the weather, I recommend going on a sugar detox. Here are four tips to help you quit the sugar habit:


And more recommendations on curbing those cravings for better success:


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