When sweet is not so sweet-Sugar and Mental Health

Wed 07 October 2015

We all know that what we eat and drink has a big impact on our general health. Food is fuel, and no engine runs well with poor quality fuel and infrequent maintenance.

Physical health and mental health are linked in important ways. We have long been aware that exercise is one of the most effective cures for depression, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to depression and anxiety, and poor diet can affect energy levels and motivation.

What is now becoming increasingly clear is the very important and impactful effects of sugar – not just to our weight and physical health, but to our mental health.

The Science

Studies have indicated two main ways that sugar can create mental health problems. First, sugar suppresses activity of a key growth hormone in the brain called BDNF. BDNF levels are already low in people suffering with depression and schizophrenia. Given that people affected by mood disorders and mental health issues will often seek comfort with sugary snacks, a vicious cycle quickly forms.

Second, sugar consumption starts off a long string of chemical reactions in your body that creates chronic inflammation. In the long term, inflammation disrupts the normal functioning of your immune system, and can wreak havoc on your brain. Again, it’s linked to a greater risk of depression and schizophrenia. Chronic inflammation is also associated with heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer. So consuming excessive amounts of sugar can set off an avalanche of negative health events – both mental and physical.

Sugar may also compromise our cognitive abilities such as learning and memory. In a study by the University of California, six weeks of taking a fructose solution (similar to soft drink) caused the rats to forget their way out of a maze, whereas rats that ate a nutritious diet found their way out faster. The high sugar diet caused insulin resistance, which in turn damaged communications between brain cells affecting learning and memory creation.

Lots of people are affected by anxiety and, while there is no evidence that sugar consumption directly causes anxiety, the crashes that follow a sugar binge can certainly make things worse. Shaking, tension, difficulty concentrating and fatigue all mimic the effects of anxiety and so can create additional worry and panic for people already impacted by anxiety.

Hard to quit

If we know that sugar is bad for us, why not just quit? Some people do it relatively easily, and will often report that they feel much better for it. However, for many of us quitting sugar turns out to be much harder than we expected and, again, science is indicating some very good reasons for this.

Our bodies help us to experience certain substances and activities as pleasurable by activating dopamine receptors in our brain. Exercise, good food, or watching a beautiful sunset all activate our brain’s reward system – they create uptake of dopamine and let us know, “that was good. You should do that again sometime”. There are studies that now indicate that people who are prone to addiction have a lower level of these dopamine receptors. It means that that require a greater “hit” of dopamine to feel the same level of pleasure.  Some highly addictive substances such as cocaine and opiates provide that hit. They flood the brain with dopamine, creating a temporary high. The brain, being a smart organ and always working to create balance, attempts to rebalance this effect by lowering dopamine uptake, and so a “low” results whereby people suffer what we know as withdrawal effects. The only way to avoid these withdrawal effects in the short term is to take more of the substance. As our brain becomes increasingly resistant to the effects, we develop what is known as “tolerance”, whereby we need increasing amounts of the substance to create the same pleasurable effects.

Sugar bingeing creates the same massive dopamine high that cocaine, opiates and other addictive substances do. While eating moderate and infrequent amounts of sugar may not lead to tolerance and addiction, eating large amounts may well do, particularly in those predisposed to addiction or depression, as they tend to need the “big hit” to temporarily feel pleasure.

Those who binge eat are often judged as having no willpower and may feel hopeless and ashamed. The reality is that many people who binge eat or suffer alcohol or drug dependencies feel terrible to start with. They often suffer with long-term depression and other mental health issues, and do not feel the same level of pleasure or relief from the “healthy” activities that others do. They have fewer dopamine receptors and require that bigger hit to feel any level of relief. As sugar provides the hit, but also creates the low, they are soon trapped in a powerfully addictive cycle that, each time, leaves them feeling lower than before. The social stigma and judgement of others can compound the issue.

How counselling can help

The challenge for many people who “medicate” their painful feelings with sugar, alcohol or anything else, is that quitting the substance does not necessarily lead to them feeling happier. Although their physical health will undoubtedly improve, the underlying emotional or mental health issues that created the cycle still remain. If we don’t deal with what sits beneath, the chances of maintaining a healthy, happy life are low.

Counselling provides a safe and supportive environment to address these issues so that the need to avoid painful feelings and low mood states is no longer necessary. Quitting sugar, feeling healthy and experiencing peace and happiness are all very achievable goals once you have the right support. As we become clearer about the role of sugar in mental health and addiction, a well-informed and multi-level approach is obvious. GPs, nutritionists, psychologists and other mental health providers are becoming increasingly switched on to this issue. If you would like assistance in improving your mental health and quitting sugar, there is help available. Life can be sweet.


Mandy Edkins (psychologist)

Contact: 0401 293214