Depressed or anxious? Sugar may be to blame

I hate to say it, but all that food that tastes so good? It’s not so good for your mental health.

I’ve written about nutrition and depression a few times before, but today I want to talk specifically about sugar. Sugar can sometimes seem like your best friend, but the truth is it’s not even close.

Here’s some science for you:

A few years ago, a team of researchers created two groups of teenage rats. One group was fed a normal rat diet, and the other was fed a diet with high levels of fructose (sugar). This went on for 10 weeks.

Then they introduced some stress into the rats’ lives: They made them swim or run through an elevated maze. The group with the high fructose diet responded differently in three ways.

  • First of all, their behavior was different. I’m not sure what depressed or anxious behavior looks like in rats, but whatever it is, they showed more of it than their healthy diet counterparts.
  • Secondly, their hormones were different. During the stressful situation, their brains produced more cortisol — the stress hormone.
  • Finally, their DNA changed. The diet appears to have altered the genes in several brain pathways involved in regulating stress.

So unfortunately, diets high in sugar contribute to feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety, especially for teenagers. If you’re feeling depressed or anxious, consider cutting back on sugary foods — you might feel a lot better.

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults.

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