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Your Moods, Sugar and Your Brain

I love sugar.

You probably love sugar too. Why? It tastes great and often comes in eye-popping colors and shapes. Every holiday comes equipped with beautiful, mouthwatering cookies and treats of all kinds. Sugary snacks also can be comforting; a little treat when we are feeling down.

Further, our brains are hard-wired to see sugar in this way:

Sugar=high-energy source, and high-energy source=survival.

I rarely eat sugar in processed form because when I do I feel lethargic, unhappy, and irritable. I can’t think clearly, and if there is some bug going around, I’m more likely to catch it. Ugh. Sugar doesn’t just affect my mood in the moment but lingers and keeps me in a dulled state where I am unproductive and not quite myself.

What is refined sugar? Sugar that has been processed from its original source such as sugar cane, beets, fruit or rice.

  • Agave nectar/syrup
  • Barley malt
  • Beet sugar
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Brown sugar
  • Cane juice
  • Caramel
  • Coconut sugar
  • Corn syrup
  • Date sugar
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Fruit juice and fruit juice concentrate
  • Rice bran syrup

Why is refined sugar not that great for us? 

Poor blood sugar control: There is nothing slowing the absorption of sugar that is easily accessed by the body. It contains none of the fat, proteins, or fibers that whole foods do. Blood sugar can directly affect mood and behavior.

-Hormone Imbalance: High blood sugar causes high amounts of the hormone insulin to be released from the pancreas to take care of the sugar in the blood. When blood sugar is continually high, the pancreas becomes overworked from pumping out so much insulin and it begins to malfunction, resulting in insulin resistance, and if continued, Type II Diabetes. When insulin is unregulated, it can affect the balance of other hormones, leading to irritability, anxiety, menopause, and PMS like symptoms such as severe mood swings.

Easy to overeat: Sugar has no fat, protein, or fiber to make us feel full, increasing our blood sugar. Our brain also craves the easy source of energy and wants us to eat more of it.

Inflammation: High blood sugar leads to chronic inflammation that impacts the brain, heart, and other organs. In fact, it may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, which has been called Type III Diabetes as more evidence shows development from high blood sugar. Inflammation can also lead to free radical production, which can damage brain cells. The brain needs some sugar, but not too much.

Mood Swings: When refined sugar is consumed, we experience a spike in blood sugar and feel really happy because we’ve found a high-energy source, which our brains love, so we release dopamine. But that energy source runs out quickly because it is rapidly absorbed and used either for energy or stored as fat for later use. Then we experience an extreme low in blood sugar making us feel irritable and cranky until our bodies can find more. It is a vicious cycle.

Addiction: Sugar triggers the same reward and addictive systems in our brains as addictive drugs.

Heart Disease Risk: Excess sugar in the blood is turned into triglycerides, which can damage vessels and arteries.

Weight Gain: When too much sugar is consumed, it must immediately be used for energy, otherwise it is stored as fat, and not the healthy kind. Sugar stored as fat usually settles around our midsection and vital organs. Weight gain also has the potentially to lead to mood disorders and other health issues.

Low Energy: Because sugar provides only a quick source of energy, the energy it gives us is not sustainable. Whole foods give us sustained energy because the body slowly breaks down the sugars inside providing us with energy little-by-little instead of all at once.

Because refined sugar also contains none of the nutrients its whole food form once did, the body must take these nutrients from its stores, which can then leave us depleted. Especially the B-vitamins, which are necessary for overall brain function and energy production.

Unhealthy Gut Microbes: Refined sugar is perfect food for feeding the unhealthy microbes in our intestinal tract. Healthy bacteria love fiber and nutrients found in whole foods, but the unhealthy ones (the ones associated with dysbiosis and obesity) thrive on refined sugars. Too much sugar can cause dysbiosis, which can lead to a whole host of issues including mood and anxiety disorders. This is because the gut and brain are linked and if the gut experiences problems, so does the brain.

Weakens the Immune System: Most of our immune cells are in our intestinal tract, which are activated by sugar, leading to increased illness and allergies, which can be a major source of brain fog.

Cancer Cell Growth: Like unhealthy gut microbes, cancer cells also love sugar, and cancer cells can begin to grow anywhere—including in the brain.

When I am working with clients who are suffering from depression and anxiety, I always encourage them to take a look at their diets.  They may be trying everything under the sun to rid themselves of emotional difficulties but have overlooked their bodies needs for effective functioning and mood stabilization. Emotional eating based on dysfunctional thought patterns can also be to blame.

My suggestions:

Become aware of refined sugar in your diet. Check labels. On everything. You may be surprised what you find. Also, keep in mind that 4g of sugar = 1 tsp, so look at serving sizes!

Work on reducing the amount. Choose more whole foods (i.e. foods without labels). Instead of fruit juice, fruit. Instead of a cookie, an apple. Instead of soda, seltzer water. Instead of refined sugar for carbohydrate fuel, choose whole food carbs such as green peas, winter squash, sweet and white potatoes, and whole grains.

Consider a sugar detox. Consume zero refined sugars for at least 1-2 weeks (though some people may need longer) and see how you feel. Then add it back in and see how you feel. Did you notice a difference? Typically, people will experience withdrawal (really strong sugar cravings), then more energy and better brain and overall health than ever before!

Enjoy these foods in moderation in small amounts. I don’t like restrictive thinking because it can lead to unhealthy diet patterns. Sugary foods are delicious. So, have a few bites once in a while if you’d like, but don’t go overboard. Or, make desserts with more natural sweeteners like maple syrup and honey. Although, after removing them from your diet, you may find you feel better and no longer want them!

-Examine what time of day it is and why you are eating. Are you hungry? Is it mealtime? Are you lonely and looking for comfort or stressed out and trying to soothe yourself?

If you think you may be comforting yourself with sugar or overeating in general, visit us at PsychSkills and use our free resource-

How to Break Free from 12 Dysfunctional Thought Patterns … and a handy chart to help you track your progress

Feel Good For Life!!

 

 

Your Moods, Sugar and Your Brain


Audrey Sherman, Ph.D.

Audrey Sherman is a psychologist, coach, speaker and author of the book Dysfunction Interrupted-How to Quickly Overcome Depression, Anxiety and Anger Starting Now. She is an expert in helping others to transform their lives by learning the elements of emotional success and overcoming the emotional baggage and dysfunctional patterns that keep them stuck in unhappy and unproductive lives, relationships and careers. She currently works with clients in person or via Skype or telephone. To learn more about Dr. Sherman, her coaching and workshops you can visit her website, Dysfunctioninterrupted.com.


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APA Reference
Sherman, A. (2017). Your Moods, Sugar and Your Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 16, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/dysfunction/2017/03/your-moods-sugar-and-your-brain/

 

Last updated: 13 Mar 2017
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network (blogs.psychcentral.com) prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.