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The Impact of sugar on Mental Health

Important Points:

  • Sugar
  • Mental Health
  • Dopamine
  • Inflammation
  • Brain

The Impact of sugar on Mental Health

When enjoying your tasty donut, the last thing on your mind is your long-term mental health. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that you should be thinking of just that. Most of us know the harm of too much sugar on our physical health in recognizing that it can cause obesity, wide-spread inflammation, and poor dental health and lead to diabetes, but few understand the significant impact of a high sugar diet on our mental health. In this article, we will at how a diet filled with too many sweeteners, such as sugar, honey, maple syrup, high-fructose corn syrup and molasses can have a detrimental impact on mental well-being.

Sugar and mental health: A toxic combination?

We all know how diet affects your physical health, but did you know that it can also have lasting effects on your mental health?  Regular consumption of meals high in sugar can affect your brain, increasing your risk of developing mental illnesses and mood disorders like depression.

The science of sugar

Sugars are simple, soluble carbohydrates essential for cell and organ functioning. Our bodies have the ability to break complex carbohydrate molecules into simple sugars so it is not necessary to take in sugar in its simple form.

Taking in excess sugar

Neurons are very sensitive cells and are not well prepared for sugar level spikes. A study by researchers from the Department of Neurobiology at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China, performed on diabetic rats showed that high blood glucose, a simple sugar, led to inflammation and neuronal damage and death in the brain which suggests that people with diabetes are at risk for neuronal damage.

What is the link between sugar consumption and mental health?

1. Inflammation

Inflammation is a natural process which helps the body protect itself from damage and also aids in the healing process. Regular consumption of refined carbohydrates and added sugars triggers inflammatory responses that can cause inflammation in the brain and lead to depression.

2. Stress responses

After consumption of a high sugar meal, the hormone insulin is produced to regulate the high blood sugar level and in removing the excess sugar to the cell can actually lower the blood sugar level to below normal. This is called hypoglycemia. A lower than normal blood sugar level will trigger the hunger signal which sets one up for a cycle of sugar addiction. Hypoglycemia may show itself by triggering several stress responses including a feeling of instability (“having the shakes”) confusion, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, and depression.

High insulin levels can also cause an imbalance of hormone estrogen and progesterone, the balance of which is important in keeping us happy and calm.

3. Obesity and depression

High consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugar is associated with excess body weight and obesity. Overweight and obese people are more likely than people with a healthy weight to suffer depression as obesity can cause poor self-image, low self-esteem and social isolation, all known contributors of depression.

4. High release of dopamine

Due to the powerful impact sugar has on mesolimbic dopamine system — the brain’s reward system — sweet foods are highly desirable. Just like drugs, sugar can activate this reward system causing release of dopamine, a chemical that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure center making you crave for more sugar to keep you feeling good. Short term surges in dopamine can be pleasurable, but high concentrations can cause depression and attention deficit disorder.

5. Increased risk of mental illnesses

Brain derived neurotrophic factor is a protein that promotes survival of nerve cells and cognitive function. A diet rich in fats and refined sugar is associated with a low brain derived neurotrophic factor increasing the risk of psychiatric disorders and depression.

6. Starving the Brain

When you consume excessive sugar, a lot of insulin is produced to push this sugar into cells for energy production. The resultant dip in blood sugar can alarm the body and the adrenal glands, making them work over time.  These glands are charged with producing cortisol and fight or flight chemicals that can get your heart racing, and rev up anxiety, and cortisol can promote insulin resistance.  This will make you consume more sugar, which will inflict more suffering on your brain and potentially even putting you at risk for Alzheimer’s dementia down the line.

7. Disrupting Hormones

When cortisol is in demand for its blood-sugar balancing effects, or because of other psychological or bodily stressors, the body “shunts” the production of progesterone to support further cortisol output. This makes evolutionary sense because if we are under stressful circumstances, preserving progesterone, our “pro-gestational” reproductive hormone, becomes secondary. Insulin can also stimulate production of DHEA and sex hormones including testosterone, which can drive the pathology we see with polycystic ovarian syndrome. Sugars have also been demonstrated to reduce liver production of sex hormone binding globulin, freeing up testosterone and estrogen in ways that may promote symptoms of estrogen dominance including premenstrual moodiness and irritability.

What effect does sugar have on mental conditions?

  • Depression & Schizophrenia: The rapid fluctuation of blood sugar can worsen mood disorders. Research has shown that high sugar can lead to an increased risk of depression and even worse outcomes in patients with schizophrenia. Interestingly, countries with high sugar intake also have correspondingly high rates of depression.
  • Anxiety: Although sugar does not increase your risk of anxiety, it can worsen your symptoms and weaken the body’s ability to respond to stress. By minimizing sugar, you can lessen the severity of anxiety symptoms, improve mood and improve the body’s ability to cope with stress.
  • Addiction: There’s a growing evidence of sugar’s addictive potential. Drugs and sugar both flood the brain with the “feel-good” chemical dopamine. In studies, rats have been shown to prefer sugar-water over cocaine, and they also display classic signs of addiction including tolerance and withdrawal when the sugary products are removed.
  • Learning & Memory: Sugar can affect how and how much we learn and remember. After six weeks of drinking a fructose solution, much like soda, rats “forgot” how to find their way out of a maze. Insulin resistance from a high sugar diet can damage communications between brain cells involved in learning and memory formation.

How do we avoid the pitfalls of sugar?

How easy is it to avoid sugar? We are bombarded with advertisements for convenience foods and tasty treats. But even seemingly healthful foods can have high levels of hidden sugars. Breakfast cereals, sauces (including ketchup and pasta sauce), flavored milks, whole-meal bread, and many products labeled as low fat, such as fruit yogurts are such culprits.

Smoothies and fruit juices for children were in the spotlight last year in an article published in BMJ Open. It was noted that over 40 percent of products surveyed contained at least 19 grams of sugar – a child’s entire maximum daily amount of free sugars. High sugar levels have also been reported in baby and toddler food products.

Always remember to check the nutritional labels. While the list of ingredients might claim no added sugars, the nutrition facts panel will show the amount of carbohydrates and sugars in the product.

What is the evidence that cutting down on sugars will have health benefits? Studies have shown that individuals who experience depression benefit from eating a healthful diet. The next time a low mood threatens to spoil your day, remember where sugar is hidden in plain sight and look to other tasty treats to lift you out of the doldrums.

Do we need to limit our sugar?      

Our bodies and minds were not designed to take in such immense amounts of sugar that has become the norm in American society. Thanks to ongoing research, we are more and more aware of the intricate link between diet and wellness. It has a significant role to play in both physical and mental health. Grappling with mental illness is difficult enough without having additional obstacles in your way. Make sure sugar isn’t making your situation harder than it needs to be.

Additionally, choosing foods that are low in refined ingredients, such as sugar, but high in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals can relieve the symptoms of depression. Scientists think that the power of these foods lies in promoting good brain health.

References:

  1. Everhealth (2012): The Impact of Sugar on Mental Health. Retrieved from

http://everhealth.net/patient-education/the-impact-of-sugar-on-mental-health

  • Medical News Today (2017):Sugar and mental health: A toxic combination? Retrieved from

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318818.php

  • Kelly Brogan:3 Ways Sugar Is Ruining Your Mental Health. Retrieved from
https://kellybroganmd.com/3-ways-sugar-ruining-mental-health/
  • Neuroscience (2017):Sugar is Not So Sweet For Mental Health. Retrieved from

https://neurosciencenews.com/sugar-mental-health-7194/

  • Standard Media (2018):The link between sugar and mental illnesses. Retrieved from

https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2001282656/link-between-sugar-and-mental-illnesses

  • NCBI (2014):Nod-like receptor protein 1 inflammasome mediates neuron injury under high glucose. Retrieved from

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24014157

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Sugar: Is it bad for kids’ learning and behavior?

Important Points:

  • Sugar
  • Behavior
  • Learning
  • Brain
  • Memory

Sugar: Is it bad for kids’ learning and behavior?

The effect of sugar intake on children’s behavior is a hotly debated topic in pediatrics. Parents and educators often contend that sugar and other carbohydrate ingestion can dramatically impact children’s behavior, particularly their activity levels. Physicians, on the other hand, have looked at controlled studies of sugar intake and have not found hypoglycemia or other blood sugar abnormalities in the children who are consuming large amounts of sugar. So how do sugar and behavior go together?

What effects of sugar make it harmful?

Diets high in refined sugar and saturated fat not only contribute to weight gain and associated health issues, but also have a profoundly detrimental impact on brain function.

It is known that excessive consumption of sugar damages areas of the brain essential for learning and memory processes. Neurons in brain regions, including the hippocampus, that encode memories no longer work efficiently leading to poorer learning.

Recent research in rodents has shown the adolescent brain is at an increased risk of developing diet-induced cognitive dysfunction. Teenage rats that drank sugary beverages were less able to remember a specific location leading to an escape hatch. This was compared to adult rats drinking sugary beverages, and teenage rats that had low-sugar diets.

The brains of the adolescent sugar-diet rats also showed increased levels of inflammation in the hippocampus, disrupting learning and memory function. Inflammation in the brain can contribute to cognitive decline and dementia.

What effect does sugar have on learning?

  • Sugar slows down the brain

2012 study on rats, conducted by researchers at UCLA, found that a diet high in fructose (that’s just another word for sugar) hinders learning and memory by literally slowing down the brain. The researchers found that rats who over-consumed fructose had damaged synaptic activity in the brain, meaning that communication among brain cells was impaired.

Heavy sugar intake caused the rats to develop a resistance to insulin — a hormone that controls blood sugar levels and also regulates the function of brain cells. Insulin strengthens the synaptic connections between brain cells, helping them to communicate better and thereby form stronger memories. So when insulin levels in the brain are lowered as the result of excess sugar consumption, cognition can be impaired.

  • Sugar Decreases Attention Span and Memory

It’s been well documented that sugar activates the brain’s pleasure response, but scientists are discovering that it impacts the brain in a variety of other ways.

When people consume a lot of sugar and then attempt challenging tasks, like math problems, the brain’s hypothalamus allows the body to release a lot of cortisol, or stress hormone, which impedes memory. When children’s bodies are flooded with cortisol at school, they struggle to pay attention to their lessons and find it difficult to sit quietly. When their attention is elsewhere, they find it difficult to retain information they’re taught.

  • Chronic Sugar Consumption Might Permanently Impair Memory Functions

In the short term, sugar consumption will only impair memory temporarily, so if children reduce their consumption, they should find that they can reach their actual academic potential. Some studies suggest that overindulging in sugar early may have a long-lasting effect.

Researchers from the University of Southern California fed adult and adolescent rats beverages with sugar levels comparable to that found in ordinary sodas. After a month, the adults showed normal brain function. However, the adolescent rats showed reduced memory and learning capacity. In addition to reduced memory levels, these rats also had inflamed hippocampi. This part of the brain is crucial for forming memories and organizing and storing memories.

If sugar can impact young rats in this way, what’s it doing to your child?

  • Sugary Foods Crowd Out Brain Food

When sugar moves into the digestive tract, it sends a signal to the brain to tell the body that it’s full. So it makes sense that researchers from Pennsylvania State University have found that the more added sugar children consume, the less likely they are to eat healthy brain foods like grains, vegetables, fruits, and dairy products.

Sugar and moods in children

Extreme levels of sugar in children can cause interference with neurotransmitters responsible for keeping moods stable. This often leads to depression and anxiety in children. Moreover, high sugar levels can cause inflammation of cells in an area of the brain known as hippocampus. This area plays a critical role in organizing and storing memories as well as connecting senses and emotions to those memories.

While this is a topic that’s still controversial, sugar has an addictive effect on children and adults alike. Like drugs, sugar floods the brain with dopamine, a feel good chemical, thus interfering with normal functioning of the brain. A study conducted at Yale University found that simple sight of a milkshake activated the same reward centers of the brain as cocaine does with addicts. In fact, another study conducted in 2007 found that study subjects (rats) preferred sugar water to cocaine.

If you notice behavior changes or mood swings in your child, consider keeping a food journal. Track what they eat and when they exhibit concerning behavior. Try eliminating suspicious foods to see if the behavior changes. While food isn’t the cause of all behavioral issues and conditions, it’s important to make sure that your child is not suffering from something that can be easily remedied.

The teenage brain and sugar

The teenage brain undergoes major developmental changes in terms of structure and function. Brain-imaging studies show that the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully mature until the early 20s. A major role of the prefrontal cortex is performing executive functions which encompasses behavioral control, attention and decision-making.

Excessive consumption of sugar during adolescence could derail normal brain maturation processes, and may alter normal development trajectories, leading to enduring behavioral predispositions.

Poor regulation of the prefrontal cortex during adolescence can explain the increased risk taking behaviors in teenagers, including dangerous driving, drug use, and binge drinking.

Changes in the brain caused by overconsumption of sugary foods during adolescence can manifest in later life as difficulty in experiencing reward. Research has shown male rats that drank sugar water during adolescence showed reduced motivation and enjoyment of rewards when they were adults. These behaviors are core features of mood disorders including depression. Importantly, this shows that how we eat during adolescence can impact brain function as adults.

How much sugar is OK?

Limiting your child’s sugar intake is essential for helping them achieve their academic potential. The American Heart Association recommends that children have no more than four teaspoons of sugar a day. Children younger than 2 years should have no sugar at all.

While calculating sugar intake, it’s important to note that every 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon. Also, be aware of the hidden sugars hiding in unexpected places like sauces, dried fruits, and flavored yogurts.

A recent study supports the idea that a breakfast with a lower sugar load may improve short-term memory and attention span at school. Giving your child a breakfast which contains fiber (oatmeal, shredded wheat, berries, bananas, whole-grain pancakes, etc.) instead of loads of refined sugar should keep adrenaline levels more constant and make the school day a more wondrous and productive experience. Packing her/his lunch box with delicious fiber-containing treats (whole-grain breads, peaches, grapes, a myriad of other fresh fruits, etc.) may turn afternoons at home into a delight.

References

  1. The Conversation (2016):  Why sugar is so much worse for teenagers’ brains. Retrieved from

https://theconversation.com/why-sugar-is-so-much-worse-for-teenagers-brains-67238

  • Arizona Ob Gyn Associates (2015):  How Sugar Affects a Childs Brain. Retrieved from
http://www.aoafamily.com/blog/how-sugar-affects-a-childs-brain/
  • The Centre for Parenting Education (2019): Sugar and our children…What’s the deal? Retrieved from

https://centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/nutrition-and-healthy-lifestyle/sugar-and-our-childrenwhats-the-deal/

  • Huffpost (2015): This Is What Sugar Does To Your Brain. Retrieved from

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sugar-brain-mental-health_n_6904778?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cDovL2FudGlvY2hzY2hvb2wub3JnL2pvb21sYV9hbnRpb2NoL2luZGV4LnBocC9hYm91dC9lZHVjYXRpb25hbC1pbnNpZ2h0cy1ibG9nLzE0OS1zdWdhci1zLWltcGFjdC1vbi1sZWFybmluZw&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAFsBtTnbZx3d2NGKWFe4eDqZpvjkcB9wb96aSnLjPfMT6VH1AGCwzu2qaKdtkVDkck1UD_6OJLtAn3lHcXurunUS7Sc3SbRwPKuTSHQ-iTY17CjcRKvvXCTIkWL73Tl3QgiOm-o6YSkt9yOGkps6rCVM7YYIjMudAdW3agIqhrCp

  • Verywell Mind (2017):  Negative Impact of Sugar on the Brain. Retrieved from

https://www.verywellmind.com/how-sugar-affects-the-brain-4065218

  • Learning Liftoff (2016): The Effects of Sugar on a Child’s Academic Performance. Retrieved from

https://www.learningliftoff.com/the-effects-of-sugar-on-a-childs-academic-performance/

  • Dr Greene (2018):  The Relationship between Sugar and Behavior in Children. Retrieved from

https://www.drgreene.com/relationship-sugar-behavior-children/

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Can studying gut microbiomes help brain disorders and mood disorders?

Important Points:

  • Brain
  • Gut
  • Fecal matter
  • Microbes

Can studying gut microbiomes help brain disorders and mood disorders?

The relationship between the gut and the brain has now been scientifically proven to be a valid and working one. The Gut-Brain axis does exist, and it does affect our daily lives more than we know.  In a controversial claim, the bacteria found in our guts may influence the way the brain works and therefore affect our moods.

The claim is based on a study in which a germ-free sterile mice, never exposed to bacteria, were found to be releasing twice the stress hormone when stimulated compared to normal mice. This inspired the theory that there is such a thing as psychobiotics or a group of microbes capable of exerting influence over the moods of people.

How is it possible that microorganisms from the gut can work its magic all the way to the brain? One theory suggests it does this through the stimulation of the Vagus nerve.  The Vagus nerve acts as a sort of information superhighway between the brain and the gut.  Another theory is related to how gut microbiomes breakdown food into chemicals that affect the whole body or even how tiny DNAs from the microorganism alter nerve function.

Scientists even discovered that transferring fecal matter between people not only rebalances gut microbiomes but also transfers behavior. In depressed patients who underwent a fecal transplant, their symptoms of anhedonia, or the lack of pleasure from things, virtually vanished after the procedure.

Another potential application of the study of gut microbiome is in the field of treating the brain disorder Parkinson’s disease. When fecal matter from Parkinson patients was placed inside the gut of mice, their brain symptoms became much worse.

With these pieces of evidence, researchers are hopeful that the future of medicine will rely heavily upon studies in the realm of gut-brain axis.