Have you ever taken a moment to think about how the foods you consume might be influencing your mental well-being? Our dietary choices can have a significant impact on factors like mood, energy levels, and overall cognitive function. Along with many physical effects from excessive consumption such as excess inflammation in the body and obesity, sugar has a direct effect on our mood and has been linked with depressive symptoms.
Sugar is known to be a drug as its addictive effect can have us going back for more and more and more. One of the main ways sugars influences our mood is through its impact on blood sugar levels. When we consume sugar, it then leads to a rapid spike in blood glucose, providing a surge of energy and a momentarily elevated mood. However, this boost is often short-lived, as the body responds by releasing insulin to bring glucose levels back to normal. The subsequent crash in blood sugar can result in irritability, fatigue, and a general feeling of low energy—commonly known as the "sugar crash" (Firth et al., 2020). This is then what can give us the crappy mood, feeling irritable or feeling full of energy and then suddenly needing a long nap or not feeling as fresh as we did prior to the sugar fest.
The key is in the type of sugar (carbohydrate) that is consumed, as this contributes to the fact of the rapid blood sugar spike or not. The more the sugar is refined, the more it is in its pure form, the less digestion required thus causing a rapid spike in blood glucose levels. If you go for more complex carbohydrates, such as brown rice or starchy vegetables, then the spike will be inhibited due to the digestion having to take place, and thus a much slower rise in blood sugar levels which doesn’t throw the body out as much.
Eating sugar also has an effect on the brain as eating it stimulates feel-good endorphins associated with reward, and when this is worn off we may become irritable, grumpy and tired or wanting more to quell those feelings. Just like any other drug, sugar is addictive and has a high and low associated when consuming it (Avena et al., 2008).
It can often be helpful to enquire within ourselves when we notice we are wanting or craving more sugar than usual – is there more stress in life at the moment? Tension in relationships? Stress from work or home? When we have greater understanding as to why we are turning to things it can be much easier to make alternate choices, thus reducing the spike and supporting ourselves in greater ways.
Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), 20–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019
Firth, J., Gangwisch, J. E., Borsini, A., Wootton, R. E., & Mayer, E. A. (2020). Food and mood: How do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing? BMJ, m2382. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m2382