Bonnie Connell, LMHC, LPC
TOctober is Halloween month, and you know what that means! Sugary treats are plentiful throughout the month, culminating in several days worth of a full-on sugar buffet around the 31st. This is a lot of fun for children and adults alike, right? Who doesn’t love a cupcake with a cute little marshmallow ghost or a cookie bat perched on top? And many parents enjoy imposing the "parent tax" on their kids' trick-or-treat haul, allowing them to extract a certain percentage of the candy for themselves.
Sugary treats are a pleasant pick-me-up. Most everyone is familiar with how eating sugar can give you a quick burst of energy (often followed later on by a feeling of needing a nap or some caffeine), but did you know that eating a lot of sugar on a regular basis can actually destabilize your moods? In fact, too much sugar is linked to increased symptoms of depression and anxiety! Yikes!
How our bodies process food plays a huge role in how we feel, both mentally and physically. In the case of sugar consumption, four different processes are triggered in our body that create less than optimal functioning:
Digesting sugar causes inflammation in the body and the brain. In your gut, inflammation prevents your body from absorbing the nutrients it needs from the food you eat. Those nutrients are needed to produce the neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that help us feel good and cope with stress. In your brain, Inflammation slows down your brain’s activity. This causes impaired focus, learning, processing speed, and memory, also known as “brain fog.”
Eating sugar causes a release of the mood-boosting chemicals Serotonin and Dopamine. This makes us feel happy, alert, and energetic. That’s great, right? But the feeling is only temporary. A large intake of sugar causes your brain to release too much of these chemicals, which depletes the limited supply, leading to low mood and cravings later on. In the case of Serotonin, a depleted supply can disrupt your body’s ability to regulate sleep, control appetite, and keep moods stable, leaving you tired, sad/irritable, and unfocused. Dopamine activates the brain’s reward system. This means eating sugar makes you feel good and causes you to seek more sugar later on. This can lead to withdrawal symptoms, and an addiction-like cycle where over time, more is needed to reach the same level of pleasure.
When sugar is broken down, it forms free radicals in the brain’s membrane. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that disrupt the normal process within a cell. These basically prevent nerve cells in the brain from sending signals to each other. This in turn leads to a decreased ability to focus, learn, process information, and remember things. It slows down your reaction time and ability to “think on your feet”, leaving you feeling sluggish.
Consuming sugar causes an insulin spike in the gut, thereby lowering insulin levels in the brain. The brain needs insulin to function, so this depletion of insulin is yet another factor that leads to a weakened ability to think clearly, focus, and remember/recall information. Over time, chronic insulin depletion in the brain can even permanently damage the brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other, causing memory loss and cognitive decline.
In a nutshell, consuming too much sugar in your daily diet keeps you on a never-ending roller coaster of ups and downs. The high produced by sugar gives you temporary feelings of happiness and energy, followed by the downhill “crash” that can produce sadness, irritability, fatigue, brain fog, increased anxiety, sleep disruption, and reduced ability to cope with stress. If you have noticed that you struggle in these areas and you also consume a lot of sugar, it might be worthwhile to consider reducing or eliminating it in your diet to see if your functioning improves. We all love sugar, and there is no shame here if you continue to enjoy it. But if you are seeking ways to improve how you feel, I hope you can use this information to make educated choices that support your well-being. Sugar consumption is something that you do have control over, and it can be empowering to know that you can choose to make positive changes that may help improve your moods and brain function.
**Disclaimer** Reducing sugar consumption in your diet is just one aspect of mental health care, and not a replacement for medication or psychiatric treatment for serious mental illness.
Want to talk more about how depression and anxiety are creating challenges in your life? I can help! Give me a call at Dandelion Counseling (413) 825-9300 or send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org