You can’t walk down the street without seeing some sort processed sugar being consumed. Giant blender drinks, ice cream piled high on a cone or a can of soda in hand – processed sugar is everywhere. And sadly the number of people coping with anxiety and depression are becoming the majority.
I believe that what you eat contributes to not only your physical health but your mental health. And the most obvious of the culprits robbing people of good mental health is processed sugar. There have been numerous studies done on rats and how sugar affects their ability to navigate their way out of a maze. There have been studies done on people to look at how sugar can make symptoms of anxiety worse.
I don’t even think we need these studies. Anyone who has noshed their way through a bag of sugary candy or had that extra piece of cake knows what happens. First, you’re flying from all the sugar you just consumed. Then CRASH! Energy levels are down, mood is sour and you can’t focus on anything. And then of course you’re looking for more in a few hours.
This happens because when we eat processed sugar, insulin comes to the rescue and shuttles away the glucose and most of the amino acids in our blood. This leaves tryptophan which normally competes with other, more important amino acids when we eat things like meat. The tryptophan is a key ingredient in making serotonin so when the tryptophan shows up on the doorstep on the brain, magic happens and your brain is flooded with serotonin. That’s when you’re feeling on top of the world after polishing off that chocolate bar. The trouble is, like most substances, a little doesn’t cut it anymore. So in the months and years that follow, you need more and more to maintain that feeling of bliss. This is how chocoholism begins. [I can attest to this because I am one, albeit an “in control” one].
This is no good for people who are prone to anxiety because it’s creating an excitable mental environment that can elevate anxious tendencies. Sugar also acts like an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) when the brain is flooded with serotonin from the processed sugar. This isn’t good news for people taking an SSRI med to manage anxiety as they are essentially making their medication ineffective. The processed sugar, in combination with the SSRI is providing double duty.
Excessive amounts of processed sugar also impairs learning and memory by inhibiting the production of BDNF [brain derived neurotrophic factor] which is not only responsible for learning and memory but for neurogenesis which is the growth and development of neurons. Processed sugar can actually make a person forgetful and learning-challenged by shrinking their hippocampus. So the late night munchies while studying aren’t necessarily a good choice. As well, people who live with depression are believed to have a lower amount of this hormone. And while it’s believed that having excessive processed sugar can increase symptoms of depression, I’m not sure if those who manage their depression with medication are unaffected.
If the reasons above aren’t good enough, good old inflammation will be cranked up when you eat processed sugar. Blood sugar levels rising and falling [especially in Type 2 Diabetics] causes inflammation in your brain. According to a number of sources including the article I just read, inflammation is linked to anxiety and depression as well as a number of other conditions affecting the brain.
And if you took notice, I said processed sugars. I’m mostly referring to refined sugar – the white powdery stuff, the high fructose corn syrup variety and even the more natural choices of honey and maple syrup.
Another thing to consider is that a little sugar isn’t a bad thing. The World Heath Organization recommends that women have 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day and men have 9 teaspoons. This is sugar not derived from whole grains and from fruit. This is the sugar in your pasta sauce. The sweetener in your bread. If you add up the added sugars in your daily intake, it’s probably well above this. When reading labels, keep in mind that 4g of sugar is a teaspoon. So if you see a product has 11g per serving, you’re eating almost 3 teaspoons of sugar. The first and most obvious step is to slowly wean yourself off the cookies, candy bars, vanilla lattes – all the ways you are controlling your bliss point with sugar. Next up would be focusing on reducing the added sugar in your every day food. I’m not going to lie, this is hard work. It’ll probably take you close to a year to make the transition.
So how do you renovate your diet? A few pointers;
- Make your own salad dressing with oil, vinegar and dijon mustard. This will save you from many of the sugars [and nasty oils I’ll mention in later blog posts] on the healthiest part of your meal: your salad.
- Use pesto or homemade tomato sauce on your pasta. The jarred sauces have a significant amount of sugar.
- Spend the extra couple dollars on artisan bread without sugar. By the way – the fermented grains they use to make it is WAY easier on your gut. You will find that you are less bloated when you eat this type of bread.
- Check your condiments – things like mustard have zero sugar where ketchup is basically some sort of tomato product, vinegar and sugar.
- Slowly switch your cereals and granola bars to lower sugar options. Kashi makes bars with 7g of sugar. That’s not great but it’s a start.
- Look at your dairy products. Your healthy yogurt is probably loaded with added sugar. Chocolate milk, despite what the dairy industry would have you believe, is NOT a good post workout indulgence. The amount of sugar in a cup of chocolate milk is incredibly higher than you need. Unless you’re Michael Phelps, you’re not working out an intensity where you need a sugary drink to refuel.
As you can see the trend here is towards eating less processed and prepared foods and making fresh foods. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not that much more expensive to eat fresh foods. The raw materials in fresh foods don’t come in sexy packaging or have fancy names. But when you think about the effects on your mental and physical health, there’s nothing sexy about processed food.