Nutrition and Mental Health: The Sugar Connection

Summer has arrived and many of us are ready to kick back and fire up the grill. Juicy burgers, summer salads, corn on the cob and yummy deserts alike have inched their way back into our diets. While these foods are OK in moderation, it seems once we realize that the unrealistic practice of “swimsuit readiness training” isn’t working, we give up and fall into a pattern of gorging ourselves. After all, what better way to reduce stress and anxiety or reward ourselves for a week well worked, right?

But could it be that the food we eat is actually creating anxiety and negatively impacting our state of mind? Most of us recognize that eating good quality food will likely result in improved physical health. We know that the right combination of fruits and vegetables can provide our bodies with essential nutrients. Conversely, we are well aware that eating too much sugar can cause weight gain (and even diabetes) and that foods high in saturated fat can lead to heart disease. But while the relationship between our physical health and the food that we eat is widely accepted, what about the connection between nutrition and mental health?

It’s true. The kind of food we eat can affect our mental health. One way to understand this is to think about the last time you skipped a meal or ate something laden with sugar. It’s likely that within a short time, you felt grumpy, fatigued or even a little anxious. What happens when you finally eat a healthy meal again? If you’re like most, your mood improves rather quickly. This is no coincidence!

So, what is it about food that has the power to make or break the way we feel? Frequently, the answer is: glucose. Otherwise known as sugar, glucose is one of the three sources of fuel that our bodies use to function and is most preferred by the brain. In fact, all carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, bread, cereal, chips, juice, soda, "junk food") eventually break down into glucose. But it’s very important that our bodies maintain steady/healthy levels, otherwise we experience roller-coaster highs and lows. When unhealthy eating patterns continue long term, the negative feelings that result will become the norm and not simply a brief and fleeting event. Before you know it, you could find yourself feeling depressed much of the time!

So, how does it all work?

Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) occurs when we don’t eat enough,don't eat balanced meals or when our carbohydrate/sugar consumption occurs with little or no protein intake, which then causes our brains to react in negative ways.Think of it like this: the brain needs glucose to function and will panic if it doesn’t get it. This panic causes adrenaline to be released which will then signal the “fight or flight” response, causing irritability and even anxiety. This “fight or flight” response prompts the body to break down muscle mass and convert it to glucose for the brain. While the brain does actually get the needed glucose, the body often produces more than it needs which ultimately gets stored as fat. Now the body is left with reduced muscle mass (necessary for burning calories) and increased fat. Quite the opposite of what one might think, considering the fact that glucose intake was too low in the first place. Aside from being exhausting, hypoglycemia often results in moodiness.

On the other hand, Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) can be just as harmful. It can seem counter-intuitive because when we eat foods high in sugar, we often feel good. The rise of glucose in our bloodstream results in the release of serotonin which stimulates a feeling of well-being. The problem is that this feeling only lasts about 30 minutes before we need to eat more sugar to achieve the same feeling. In comparison to the well-being we experience while on the sugar high, a lack of sugar can feel depressing and it’s easy to get caught up in a pattern of eating more and more sugar just to feel better. Essentially, sugar ends up being used as a band-aid to treat the sadness associated with a “sugar crash”.

How can a balanced state be achieved? Below are some simple steps you can take to avoid the “sugar crash”:
  • Never skip a meal-this is perhaps the most important rule to remember.

  • Add protein to every meal and snack that you eat. Protein takes longer to break down and therefore lasts longer as a source of energy.

  • Eat shortly after waking up and try to eat a healthy snack every 3 hours for the rest of the day.

  • Remember-what you eat is as important as when you eat. In addition to protein, it’s important to stick with carbohydrates that are slow burning. These are considered "complex” as opposed to "simple" and will provide you with a more balanced source of energy. This includes things like whole grain (not white) bread as well as fruits and vegetables. Also-avoid drinking excessive amounts of fruit juice since each glass contains high amounts of sugar.

Finally, meals are often the central purpose around which friends and families gather. It can be easy to get carried away in all of the joy and excitement of a celebration.
Remember to think about what you put into your mouth and consider how the food will make you feel in an hour or two. With a little practice and some intentional thought, you can begin to eat in a way that leaves you feeling more balanced and be less susceptible to the negative effects of the “sugar roller coaster”.