HOW SUGAR IMPACTS MENTAL HEALTH

Like a lot of folks, I like to ring in the new year with a few optimistic goals for positive change.

My big goal this year is to eliminate sugar from my diet for a month to see what kind of impact it has on my mental health. I have a major sweet tooth. I tend to binge on cookies, brownies, muffins or anything else with sugar that I can get my hands on. It isn’t long after eating that I can’t seem to think straight. I feel grumpy, low energy or just plain depressed.

Study after study seems to link sugar consumption with an increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes, Obesity and Cardiovascular Disease (CVD). But I’m curious, what kind of impact does sugar have on our mental health? I really want to know what is sugar doing to our brains? And can we blame our depression on the irresistible sweet stuff?

Before going through with this big challenge, I decided to get a bit more informed. So I spoke with nutrition expert, Monique Aucoin of Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine to find out what the research has to say about sugar and carbs. I met Monique after she lectured on the subject of nutrition an mental health at the University of Toronto.

From Monique’s experience and research, “we know that patients who suffer from depression or anxiety commonly they’re eating diets that are very high in refined carbohydrates, so we see that diets that are very high in sugar can actually cause harm to the brain.”

“we know that patients who suffer from depression or anxiety commonly they’re eating diets that are very high in refined carbohydrates, so we see that diets that are very high in sugar can actually cause harm to the brain.”

Monique Aucoin, Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine

To understand the potential harm sugar can have on the brain, it’s best to understand what sugar does to the brain. According to Monique, “our brain is really sensitive to sugar. It’s the only fuel source that it can use and it’s not able to store it, so it really relies on this constant supply being available.”

“But when we eat a meal that’s very rich in refined carbohydrates or sugar, we see a really rapid increase in blood sugar and this causes the brain to release dopamine, so we feel really good. However, the body compensates by releasing insulin, and that blood sugar level comes down rapidly.” Needless to say, our brain doesn’t feel very good when this happens. We can sort of experience that sort of post-meal crash, Monique points out: “When blood sugar dips, we can experience things like irritability, anxiety, loss of concentration or loss of focus,” symptoms often associated with depression.

It’s true I experience many of the signs Monique describes, but can I really blame sugar? Given the complex nature of depression, it’s difficult to pinpoint the specific causes, which are unquestionably multifactorial. That said, the research seems to indicate glucose and fructose must play some kind of role in at least exacerbating the symptoms.

Yet despite knowing just how toxic sugar is – both physically and mentally – I can’t seem to stop inhaling it.


IS SUGAR REALLY ADDICTIVE?

According to science, it seems that it is – although just how addictive is up for debate. Brain pathways that evolved to respond to natural rewards are activated by addictive drugs. In a study based out of Queensland University of Technology, sugar was demonstrated to stimulate dopamine, much in the same way drugs like opiods or cocaine do. However other research downplays the addictive potential of sugar. According to one 2014 Edinburgh University study stated sugar addiction was not a biochemical dependency but a psychological one similar to gambling.

Does that mean it should be easier to “go off the bottle” that is sugar, than other substances, which often necessitate more serious interventions such as rehab? Monique believes that is in fact the case.

“It tends to be that these big swings in blood sugar perpetuate the craving. But the good news is that this can change.  In my clinical practice I often see, the more sugar people are eating, the more they crave it. But the less sugar they’re eating, the less they crave it.”

Knowing this, I asked Monique if she recommends I go cold turkey and abandon all sources of sugar from my diet, or if I could handle some moderation.

Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the solution isn’t so simple. “For most people if they can make really good choices on a daily basis, one treat probably isn’t going to be a concern. On the other hand, there are some people that it’s really hard to eat just one cookie and for those people cutting it out can sometimes be the best option.”

Basically it depends on just how addictive your personality is, which varies from individual to individual. Given addictions exist within my family, and I’ve certainly struggled with impulse control, I suspect I’ll likely fall into the second group.

To find out for certain what works for me, I plan is to try both approaches. First I’m going four weeks without my crack of choice. This means eliminating any products that contain sugar, sweetener or syrup, like the obvious stuff, baked goods or candy, but also alcohol, soda pop and anything else that contains added sugar. This means reading oodles of food labels and exercising major willpower at dinner parties.

After that I’ll try to slowly integrate certain sugary products to see if I’m capable of moderating.

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but the majority of New Year’s Resolutions do tend to fail. About 90% according to one study. But to offset that, I’m keeping a daily nutrition diary where I’m logging what I’m eating and also how I’m feeling when it comes to cravings and withdrawal. I’ll also check in with Monique a few times over the month, to help ensure I stay on track and chronicle my progress.

Come back here for updates on the diet and if you have any questions post them below.

To learn more about the impact of sugar on your health, check out these articles:

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/interactive-graphic-shows-what-sugar-does-to-your-body-a6948101.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/23/opinion/sugar-season-its-everywhere-and-addictive.html?_r=1

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To learn more about Monique Aucoin and her practice, check out her website.