Sugar consumption has immense repercussions on mental health. Sugar is found everywhere – even in the most unsuspecting places. Within the Standard American Diet, otherwise known as “SAD,” it is nearly impossible to avoid. It seems we are well acquainted with the impact that sugar has on our physical health, given it remains the culprit for chronic illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and fatty liver disease. However, we tend to forget the other half of the equation. How does sugar impact our mental health? To no surprise, it is equally as harmful. It can be considered one of the most common foods that negatively affect mental health given its overwhelming presence in the modern American diet.
Understanding the impact that sugar has on our wellbeing will hopefully empower you to be more conscientious of how and where you may be most often consuming it. At Awakened Path, we often operate from the lens of nutrition and integrative medicine for mental health. This means that through individual therapy, we take into consideration the impact that dietary practices have on our emotional and psychological well-being. Through our philosophy, our clinicians can help assist you in examining your diet and how you can be more proactive about limiting your sugar intake to support your overall health.
What is sugar?
Sugar! What exactly is it? According to Medical News Today, “sugar is a simple, edible, crystalline carbohydrate that comes in many different forms. The main types of sugar are sucrose (common table sugar), lactose, and fructose.” It is made from refined sugarcane and sugar beets through a process that removes the vitamins and minerals from the plant itself. The result? The refined, white crystals we are all familiar with and the overconsumption of such crystals with illness and disease, in both a physical and mental capacity, as a byproduct.
Sugar is a common additive to many commonly consumed foods and beverages to increase sweetness. Even further, sugar is added to foods and beverages that one might not even consider sweet. The food industry has developed an overdependence on sugar which leaves us, as consumers, craving more. Top sources of sugar include soft drinks, fruit juices, flavored yogurts, cereals, cookies, cakes, candy, and ultra-processed foods found in the Standard American Diet. Unfortunately, this list is not exhaustive; sugar is found in nearly every man-made food.
Your Brain on Sugar
Sugar acts like a drug within the brain. When sugar enters the body, our brain’s reward system reacts similarly as it would with a drug such as cocaine. The reward system is activated upon consumption of sugar and dopamine is released, which reinforces the behavior as being a positive experience, making it more likely the ‘drug’ will be consumed again. The more sugar we consume, the higher the tolerance to it we develop, which creates a greater need to generate the same experience. Thus, sugary foods and drinks are craved in higher amounts on a more frequent basis.
Sugar and the Gut
Within nutrition and integrative medicine for mental health, it is essential that practitioners consider the whole body approach in addressing mental health concerns. For example, many don’t know that gut health is critical to brain health and general wellbeing.
Sugar contributes to the commonly found condition, “leaky gut,” which influences mental health directly. The concept of ‘leaky gut’ is lesser-known within the medical field, yet many suffer from this condition and sugar is partially to blame. Sugar increases inflammation, eliminating the ‘good’ bacteria in the gut and feeding the ‘bad’ bacteria, allowing them to flourish. This, as a result, compromises the gut lining. When there is an imbalance between good and bad bacteria, it can cause an increase in cravings for sugar, which perpetuates this cycle. The condition of “leaky gut” is an increase in gut permeability which allows for partially digested foods, toxins, and pathogens to infiltrate the body and trigger widespread inflammation throughout the body. While some inflammation is necessary for the body to optimally function, too much can contribute to emotional and psychological issues.
Surprisingly, the gut and the brain have a close relationship. They are connected directly by the vagus nerve. Within the walls of the digestive system lies what’s called the “Second Brain,” or the enteric nervous system, and communicates with the brain through the vagus nerve and nervous system, otherwise known as the gut-brain axis. The health of our gut, or lack thereof, is connected to our emotional and psychological health. Increased permeability or ‘leaky gut,’ through the influence of sugar, has influence within the brain.
The impact of sugar on the gut microbiome, the community of microscopic bacteria that inhabits our intestines, is tremendous. Sugar, alongside the Standard American Diet, wreaks havoc within the gut, which compromises the integrity of the gut lining. As mentioned above, “leaky gut” is a result of this impact. Changes in our gut microbiota result in changes in our brain chemistry, making us more susceptible to mental health concerns, like depression and anxiety.
How can I be more proactive about monitoring sugar in my diet?
Sugar, whether outwardly listed as ‘sugar’ or not, can be found in a vast majority of foods you eat daily. Recognizing the presence of sugar, and all of its nicknames can leave you feeling more empowered when shopping for groceries. Other ingredients that are forms of sugar to consider are: dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, sucrose, evaporated cane juice, maltose, etc.
Similarly, refraining from adding additional sugar, if possible, to your meals and beverages can help minimize the amount of sugar you are consuming from day to day. For example, consider opting out of your spoonful of sugar to your morning coffee or tea or choosing to eat your grapefruit without a sprinkle of granulated sugar instead. It is small changes that make an enormous difference.
Additionally, opting for more natural sweeteners, such as raw honey (commercial honey is often processed), maple syrup, agave, monk fruit or date-based, protects your body from the harmful repercussions of refined sugar. Similarly, choosing artificial sugar, like aspartame and saccharin, may appear to be the better option but comes with a host of mental and physical repercussions as well. Research has found that consumption of sweeteners, like aspartame, have been connected to mood issues and cognitive issues in general. Choosing less processed options in general, and opting for more natural sweeteners (when necessary), support both mental and physical wellness overall.
What are my next steps?
At Awakened Path, we are ready to equip you with the skills to be more informed about the pervasiveness of sugar in your daily routine. Given the sugar-laden nature of the Standard American Diet, it can be difficult to navigate a world being more sugar-conscious when it appears to be everywhere. While the intent is not to demonize sugar, it is merely to demonstrate the ability of certain dietary practices to rob us of happy, healthy lives. However, through the support and guidance of your clinician, he or she can empower you with the necessary knowledge to make better dietary choices and avoid sugar while doing so.
To learn more about sugar on mental health, consider the article below:
Check out this blog on the top 10 foods to support your mental health: https://www.awakenedpathcounseling.com/top-10-foods-to-support-your-mental-health/