How sugar makes you depressed and ways to detox from it

Find out how sweetened drinks, refined grains and high-carb meals are setting your emotions on a roller coaster ride that’s destined to crash.

Find out how your daily sugar intake could be hurting your health

Find out how your daily sugar intake could be hurting your health (Photo by Getty Images).

If you remember the old ad campaign of two eggs being fried with the message, “This is your brain on drugs”, today we can re-create it using sugar instead of drugs. It sounds extreme, but the average Canadian consumes the equivalent of 26 teaspoons in a day. And here’s the kicker, it’s not only adding inches to your waistline, but sending your mood up for failure. Read on for how sugar makes you depressed:

Your brain on sugar
Once sugar (aka glucose) is ingested – whether it’s in the form of a donut or a high-carb dinner – insulin is released. Immediately, it begins to direct the glucose in your bloodstream. Unlike fat cells, the brain can’t store glucose, so this simple sugar is readily burned up upon use (a process that speeds up during times of stress, such as big meetings, or even during concentration tasks, likes writing this article).

Considering your brain cells need twice the energy of other cells in your body, it’s no surprise then, that your head is extremely sensitive to changing blood sugar levels.

Your body also releases endorphins such as dopamine and serotonin to accompany this sugar rush, which is why, at first, you’ll feel happier, and perhaps even calmer. However, these receptor sites slow production to regulate the same endorphins that had you feeling so good, causing a crash in mood and even depression — and so the cycle begins and we reach for more sugar.

In fact, patients who were treated for both type 2 diabetes and depression at the same time achieve better results, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania. This is one of the many reasons that I include dietary changes for every patient that comes into my office with concerns of depression and/or mood swings.

The sweet tooth — unveiled
What goes up (in this case, blood sugar) must come down.

Sleepiness right after a sugar-rich meal is a classic symptom of reduced insulin sensitivity (which down the road leads to diabetes), along with a dip in mood and energy. I find most patients in my practice with high insulin have low levels of serotonin — the “happy” hormone that controls our mood, sleep patterns, self-esteem, ability to make decisions and cravings.

According to research from Princeton University, “food addiction” evolves as a result of changes in brain pathways. Sugar causes the release of the hormone dopamine in the brain — the same response activated by addictive drugs. These chemical adaptations cause changes in dopamine release over time. In this particular study, rats actually became sugar-dependent, paving the way for theories that sugar can be physiologically addictive. The rats even experienced ‘withdrawals’ through low levels of dopamine and anxiety. They displayed chattering teeth and were reluctant to leave their homes — except if it was to get more sugar. Given this, it’s not hard to believe that in brain scans, sugar appears to be as addictive as cocaine.

The proof is in the (sugar-filled) pudding
New research suggests that drinking sweetened beverages, even diet drinks, is associated with an increased risk of depression. People who drank more than four cans or cups per day of soda were 30 percent more likely to develop depression than those who drank no soda. Those who drank four cans of fruit punch per day were about 38 percent more likely to develop depression than those who did not drink sweetened drinks. Not to mention that these drinks often lack any essential nutrients and healthy brain fuel.

A similar study in the British Journal of Psychiatry (of more than 3400 middle-aged civil servants) found that those who had a diet that contained a lot of processed foods – ranging from desserts to refined grains – had a 58 percent increased risk for depression, whereas those whose diet could be described as containing more whole foods  — think veggies, fruits and fish – had a reduced risk for depression of 26 percent.

Bottom line: If you find your mood as predictable as the weather, I recommend going on a sugar detox. Read this article for four tips to help you quit the sugar habit and this for more recommendations on curbing those cravings for better success.

Have you ever considered going on a sugar detox? Tell us what would be the hardest for you to give up in the comment section below.

Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor, Chatelaine magazine columnist, and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and The Supercharged Hormone Diet. Her newest release, The Carb Sensitivity Program, is now available across Canada. She’s also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique and a regular guest on The Dr. Oz Show. For more wellness advice from Natasha Turner, click here