There is plenty of research about how sugar affects your physical health. It can lead to issues like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Physical health problems can often lead to mental health concerns. From a simple standpoint, if you do not physically feel well then you are likely not going to feel as mentally well. There is a connection to the mind and body. If you consider someone who is obese, they are likely more sedentary which can be connected to symptoms of depression. They are also more likely to experience body image concerns and lack of social confidence which can cause anxiety. The mind and body are connected, so if sugar can be harmful to the body it makes sense it can be harmful to the mind as well.
When your sugar intake goes up and down frequently, it can impact your mood especially if you already have a mood disorder. Even if you do not have a mood disorder, think of the crash that happens after eating a lot of sugar. Imagine a toddler that eats a whole bowl of ice cream. They are bouncing off the walls, but they eventually crash and become lethargic. The crash can significantly impact their mood and your mood. Those with other mood disorders can be heavily impacted by this crash. Those with schizophrenia have been found to experience worse outcomes. High amounts of sugar are found to cause chronic inflammation. Inflammation has been linked to symptoms of depression.
High amounts of sugar can cause symptoms like headaches, blurry vision, frequent urination, and difficulty thinking or concentrating. For some people, these symptoms might resemble the symptoms they experience when they are feeling anxious or even a panic attack. Sugar can potentially worsen their anxiety. It also can weaken the body and your stress response. Decreasing anxiety can be a beneficial step towards managing anxiety and improving your response to stress.
Like caffeine, chronically ingesting high amounts of sugar can lead to a certain amount of dependence. Sugar causes a flooding of dopamine, the feel good hormone, in the brain. Over time, tolerance builds and the need for more sugar increases, similar to what happens to a person addicted to cocaine. Your brain chemistry changes and withdrawal symptoms appear when you have not had sugar after a while. That “craving” for sugar is your body’s way of feeding the sugar addiction.
Learning & Memory
Think of how you feel in the midst of a sugar crash. The sluggishness is not just related to how you feel physically. You likely feel mentally sluggish as well. Large amounts of sugar have been found to negatively affect your ability to learn and recall information. High amounts of sugar over a long period of time can cause insulin resistance in people. Insulin resistance can cause damage in brain cells that are part of forming memories and learning.
Most people think of sweets or dessert as having the sugar. Unfortunately, sugar is in more than people realize. Paying attention to what you put in your body can be the first steps to avoiding the issues listed above. Making some changes to your diet can help you avoid the negative impacts of sugar of your physical and mental health.
Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.