You guys ask us all the time if there’s a connection between the sweet stuff and mental health.
And, with research supporting that sugar can trigger stress and affect our moods, we checked in with our very own founder and director, Sarah Wilson, about whether there’s a link between sugar and anxiety…
The short answer is yes, without a doubt.
The longer one requires me to rant.
Let’s start with my experience, then flesh out from there. Me, when I got unwell with Hashimotos seven years ago, I was also suffering one of my most tumultuous bouts of anxiety. The two are very interrelated. I’ll explore this in my new book first, we make the beast beautiful quite a bit.
As many of you here know, I quit sugar as an experiment to see if it could heal me. It had a massive impact on my autoimmune (AI) disease…I’ll probably share some updates on this shortly.
But, the sugar-quitting also affected my anxiety – it turned down the volume dramatically. Today, if I eat sugar, my anxiety flares. Flipside, anxiety makes me crave sugar. Which is just so cruel, right.
So, like most things in this anxious tale I now tell, it’s all very intertwined and clusterf*cky. Add to this, ironically, I first attempted to write my new book on anxiety six years ago, back when I was unwell and experimenting with healing my AI. I got 60,000 words in, dumped it, and wrote I Quit Sugar instead.
There you go. Intertwined. But now to the factoids:
Sugar stuffs our guts, which feeds anxiety.
Possibly the most exciting work is being conducted on the link between gut health, inflammation and anxiety. As you’ve no doubt heard, we have a whole community of bacteria in our digestive tract – our microbiome – which not only plays an important role in our metabolic and immune systems, but also our nervous system. Recent research shows that these microbes influence emotional behaviour and how we respond to stress.
Sugar, of course, totally stuffs up the microbiome, which can trigger a cascade of inflammatory molecular reactions that feed back to the central nervous system, causing inflammation in the brain. And it’s this inflammation that messes with our neurotransmitters, leading to anxiety. Put simply,
If you have fire in the gut, you have fire in the brain.
Bipolar improves with quitting sugar.
Recent studies link bipolar disorder to elevated uric acid levels. Sugar – specifically fructose – inhibits uric acid excretion (and, thus, build up in our bodies), and research by the University of Basel in Switzerland has found that a low-sugar diet improves symptoms in sufferers.
It’s a cascading effect…
The thing is, when you quit sugar you essentially quit processed food since more than 80 per cent of the processed stuff contains added sugar. So, quitting sugar leaves you eating more… real food.
- A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that a diet consisting of vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and whole grains correlated with less anxiety.
- Another study found that combining junk food and stress (a pretty popular combo) was particularly explosive, particularly among women. When low-stress women ate junk food the health impact – across all markers – was a fraction of that for anxious women.
- Researchers have found that folk who eat more fermented foods (which contain gut healing probiotics) have fewer symptoms of social anxiety. Another study found that eating a mere yoghurt (I say ‘mere’ because the commercial stuff contains only small amounts of the beneficial bacteria touted on the front of the tub) twice a day for a few weeks changed the makeup of the subjects’ gut microbes, and this led to the production of compounds that modified brain chemistry.
- Some boffin some time back did an experiment that found anxious teens who ate extra serves of green vegetables saw a reduction in their anxiety levels.
Sugar keeps us in a clutching, grasping cycle.
I share in my new book that anxiety is massively fuelled by a grasping outwards – to doctors, gurus, pills, distractions, happenings.
Sugar feeds into this. As I’ve banged on about for six years, we’re actually programmed to hunt down sugar, to grasp and grasp for it. Why? Because it’s such a marvellous and instant source of energy (which our ancestors 10,000 years ago found helpful when outrunning sabre-toothed tigers and hunting for dinner).
The stuff is also addictive and we have no “off switch” or “I’m full switch” for it in our brains (as we do for all other food molecules), so we keep going back for more and more.
Plus, having anxiety means sugar is even more dangerous.
Anxiety renders us physically delicate. Having your fight or flight response permanently switched to “on” triggers a stack of cortisol to circulate in your body, which, among other things, down-regulates your digestive and reproductive systems.
Elevated cortisol also causes poor absorption of key nutrients, particularly brain-essential ones such as the B-group vitamins, omega-3 fats, zinc, iron and magnesium. Plus, anxiety makes us fat, reduces bone density, is correlated with obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Add sugar to this weakened picture and you can see how everything can spiral.
I hope that all makes sense. In many ways, my new book on anxiety is really the prologue to my I Quit Sugar story. My sugar-free life then saw my anxiety improve (exponentially), enabling me to move on to the next chapter of my career.
It’s a beautiful thing…
We originally published this post in February 2017. We updated it in December 2017.