3 Surprising Ways Sugar Affects Mental Health

In a massive study of more than 20,000 men and women, sugar intake was linked to mental disorders. The Whitehall II study found that those in the top third percentile for sugar consumption were more likely to develop depression within five years. 

It is common knowledge that diet can affect both physical and mental health. Sugar—especially processed sugar—is one of the biggest culprits for diet-associated mental health issues. When an individual consumes sugar, large amounts of dopamine are released in the brain—similar to the effect caused by cocaine. Dopamine is a “feel good” chemical, so large quantities feel extremely pleasurable. However, the short lived “high” gives way to harmful long-term effects. Here are three surprising ways sugar can affect mental wellbeing.

  1. Sugar can drain your energy. Foods high in sugar can cause a brief energy boost. However this elevated energy is followed by a drop in blood sugar—sometimes called a “sugar crash”—that can leave a person feeling exhausted. Constant blood sugar fluctuations can lead to inconsistent energy levels and general fatigue. 
  2. Sugar can affect your memory. Consuming sugar can impact how much you learn and remember. A study on rats found that six weeks of drinking a sugar solution similar to soda caused the rats to forget how to find their way out of a maze. Additionally, research has shown that insulation resistance caused by a diet high in sugar can damage brain cells related to learning and memory formation. 
  3. Sugar can worsen anxiety. Not only can a “sugar crash” make you feel irritable, shaky and tense, but fluctuating blood sugar levels can worsen the symptoms of anxiety and the body’s ability to respond to stress. Low blood sugar can put the body into a stress response and may simulate or worsen the symptoms of an anxiety attack. 

The American Heart Association recommends a limit of six-nine teaspoons of sugar per day. That is the equivalent of 2-3 bananas or about one can of Coca-Cola. 

As a culture, we likely consume much more sugar than we realize, which can have a tremendous effect on our mental health as well as our physical health.