My dad has a massive sweet tooth. Thanks to him, so do I. I find myself reaching for sweet treats daily, and more so in times of stress. Because let’s be real – sugar is good. Sugary drinks, sugary food, sugar itself – it’s all really good. Sadly, it's no surprise that lots of sugar is terrible for your health. Some of the commonly known long-term impacts being cardiovascular disease, liver disease and of course diabetes.
We've all heard how bad it is for our physical health, weight gain, etc. However not much is said about how sugar can affect your mental health.
Research suggests that sugar can have a negative impact on both our physical as well as mental health. Greater sugar consumption has been correlated with an increased risk of depression in men and women.
I can personally attest to craving sugary food when I’m feeling particularly nervous. Eating a Kinder Bueno (or three) while working on a project is a pretty good way to reduce my stress. But could my liking for sweets really be doing more harm than good?
Research suggests that there is a relationship between sugar and anxiety. And spoiler alert – it’s not good news for sugar fans. A 2019 study found that dietary patterns in older adults who consumed higher amounts of sugars were associated with higher levels of anxiety. Unfortunately, the youngins aren’t off the hook either. Young adults who reported greater cravings of sweet food also reported higher anxiety symptoms.
Gimme some of that sugar baby
If it's bad for us, then why do we crave it in the first place? The simple answer is that sugar is a source of energy, and our body needs the energy to survive. The more elaborate answer is that sugar plays with our brain’s reward system. Both our preference for sweet treats and the degree to which our mood changes after sugar consumption is mediated by this same reward system.
Furthermore, to combat negative emotions such as stress, anxiety or sadness, we seek comforting, sugary foods as a coping mechanism. Unfortunately, the pleasure and energy we derive from sugary food is short-lived and does not provide us with sustainable, long-lasting effects. Regular consumption of these sugary treats can actually reduce the responsiveness of the brain’s reward system over time, leading us to consume greater amounts of sugar to get the same good feeling.
So how exactly does sugar affect your anxiety?
Picture this: You come home from work after a long day. Deadlines, meetings, the commute home – it’s the perfect recipe for stress. All you want right now is a slice of that decadent chocolate cake sitting in the fridge. With the first bite, you feel that influx of energy, the “sugar rush”. This is where your body quickly and easily digests the simple sugars in the cake. You feel great as your stress melts away as your brain releases the “happy molecules” - serotonin and dopamine. As you eat that cake, your body starts to increase insulin production in order to balance that sugar spike. Shortly after, there is a rapid breakdown of sugars from the chocolate cake, which causes a “sugar crash”. This when your body releases hormones - cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine- to bring your sugar levels back up to normal.
Interestingly, these are the same hormones that are released when we face a threat in our environment, more commonly known as, flight or fight response.
When faced with a threat, we experience a range of physical symptoms such as:
This is how our body prepares itself to manage a dangerous situation. For those of us with heightened anxiety, we may experience these symptoms even in situations that may not be threatening.
So if the hormones being released during a sugar crash are the same as when we face a threatening situation, the symptoms we experience could mimic those of a typical panic attack. Someone prone to anxiety may experience a sugar crash and then mistake those symptoms as a panic attack, causing further distress and confusion.
Often times, when we experience a sugar crash, we seek out more sweet treats, to increase our levels back up. This is how we develop a vicious cycle swinging between sugar highs and lows, thereby affecting the brain and bodily function.
Nerd Fact: this can also interfere with the production of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), a protein necessary for brain development, which regulates anxiety, panic, and reactions to stressors.
Do anxious people crave more sweets?
Its the age-old question - what came first, chicken or the egg?
Do anxious people eat more sugar or does eating sugary food make you more prone to developing an anxiety disorder?
While there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut answer, research suggests that both explanations have some merit. Young people with anxiety symptoms are twice as likely to crave sweets than those without symptoms. And eating sugary foods regularly in one’s diet is associated with greater symptoms of anxiety.
Since there is no straight answer to this, it is safe to say that a diet rich in sugars isn’t ideal, to begin with. If you tend to be an anxious person, those chocolate bars you have stashed in your desk probably won’t do you any favours in managing your stress.
Do I have to cut sugars completely out of My diet?
Thankfully, no (phew!). I often tell clients, going cold turkey is often unsuccessful. Therefore, like all things in life, I suggest being mindful of your consumption of sugar rather than using it as a coping mechanism.
Try reading the labels on packaged foods and snacks, and select the items that have lower amounts of sugar.
At Google's corporate offices where they cater meals for all their employees, it was found that the location of where they placed their unhealthy snacks made a big difference in how much their employees consumed them. They also found that making healthier foods easy to access and using smaller plates meant their employees ate more vegetables and had moderate portions. So putting those cookies away in a drawer and keeping the fruit in your line of sight can actually make a big difference!
Switching over completely can be intimidating at first, so small. For instance, instead of having a row of Oreos (come on, we’ve all done it), maybe have two Oreos and a granola bar with dark chocolate to satisfy your sugar craving.
At the end of the day, it's not that you can’t have one or two cookies as a treat. It’s about paying attention to how you work through stressful situations and adjust your eating habits accordingly. And this is how I manage my sweet tooth.
What is your guilty pleasure? Leave a comment below and I can help you create a plan to manage those cravings.
Until next time,