Understanding The Link Between Sugar and Depression and How to Break The Unhealthy Pattern


I was eating sugar to make myself feel better, but it really only made me feel worse.

Does that sound like you?

So many of us don’t realize how our sugar intake is tied to our mental health.  We all know common medical advice is to avoid sugar, but we still eat it in many foods. It tastes good!

But, sugar hurts our bodies, makes us gain weight, and disrupts our mental energy. In the US, the average adult is eating around three times the recommended amount of added sugar! Sugar is infamous for causing chronic diseases (like diabetes), insulin resistance, tooth decay, and obesity. It also increases your risk for mental health issues, like mood disorders, depression, and other chronic health issues.

But, it can be so hard to stop eating sugar. We tie sugar to our feelings and lifestyle—which makes us emotionally addicted to eating sugar. If you are having depressive episodes, sugar could be a major culprit.

In this blog, I want to discuss the link between sugar and major depression. I also want to give you some really valuable tips on how to manage your sweet tooth and reduce your sugar intake without feeling like you are being punished. You can do this!

Learn how to fuel your body with great food and you will feel so much better.

2 Types of Sugar You Need to Know About

Not all sugar is the same!

Before going any further, we really need to talk about the major differences between the two kinds of sugar.

Added Sugar (Processed Sugar)

Normally when you hear about sugar, you are probably thinking of refined or processed sugar. In this case, they are crushing down sugar cane to extract the juice. This juice is boiled down into a concentrated syrup that is then dried and ground into granular bits known as “raw sugar.” To refine our sugar further, the granular sugar bits are then refined, purified, and turned into the kind of sugar desired.

  • Brown sugar: The naturally occurring molasses is left in the sugar to make dark brown sugar or light brown sugar.
  • Granulated sugar: The white sugar you buy in the store is highly refined to remove all molasses and ground into a finer crystal.
  • Powdered sugar: Grinding the granulated sugar and adding a bit of cornstarch (stops clumping), makes powdered sugar light and fluffy.

The real issue is: sugar cane is naturally about 73% water, 13% fiber, 12% sugar, and 3% molasses.

We were not supposed to eat just the sugar content alone. When you remove the fiber, water, and (in some cases) molasses, you are fundamentally changing the nature of the plant. Imagine eating a whole stick of sugar cane (you wouldn’t be able to chew enough!); the fiber content is the same as the sugar, helping your body process it quickly instead of storing it (which turns to fat).

Sugar cane is sometimes fed to pandas and elephants in captivity, so in its original state, the sugar content of the cane isn’t a problem. When we remove the sugar content from the stalk, we remove all nutritional value.

Humans have found that adding this isolated sugar to our food, drinks, and candy makes them taste really good. So good, in fact, that the body craves more. Research has shown that fast-food restaurants often layer fat, salt, and sugar to stimulate your appetite and make you overeat.

Sugar causes our brains to release dopamine and opioids, which are pleasure chemicals that make us feel good. So, naturally, we just want more sugar! We are chasing the high!

But, processed sugar doesn’t carry with it the fiber and nutrients. We get too much sugar in our systems and our body starts to:

  • Turn glucose into glycogen for storage, building up fat
  • Dissolves minerals in our tooth enamel
  • Reduce collagen and elastin in the skin (causing wrinkles)
  • Slows the metabolic process
  • Increases blood pressure and blood sugar levels

Simple Sugar (Glucose/Blood Sugar)

On the other hand, simple sugars are naturally present in the raw foods we eat, like fruits, vegetables, whole-grain foods, nuts, and beans. Our bodies turn carbs and starches into sugar too. Because these foods are still paired with the other naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, proteins, and fiber, they are processed differently by the body. The digestion process of the sugar is slowed down and you will fill up faster.

An apple has approximately 19 grams of sugar and 4.4 grams of fiber. A snickers bar has 20g sugar and .8g fiber. An 8oz Pepsi has 27 grams of sugar and no fiber.

This isn’t even taking into account that vitamin C, K, B6, potassium, manganese, and copper in the apple that isn’t in the candy bar or soda.

A cup of raspberries has an even lower glycemic index with 5g sugar and 8g fiber. They are also filled with vitamin C, K, B, E, manganese, magnesium, potassium, and copper.

Sugar itself isn’t bad. What is bad when we pull it out of foods, stripping all nutritional value and forcing our body to process far more than we should.

Why Does Sugar Increase the Risk of Depression?

Your brain depends on glucose, which is what it creates through carbohydrates and sugars found in foods. Adding extra sugar to your diet throws your insulin levels out of whack and drains the B vitamins your body needs for a positive mood. Increased sugar will put you at an increased risk for mental illness, including depression.

study found that men in the United States who ate high levels of sugar (67g or more per day) were 23% more likely to receive a depression diagnosis within 5 years.

Sugar’s impact on the thyroid will cause problems with hormone regulation, metabolism, temperature and growth. This can really mess with your mind and cause mood swings that are hard to control.

If you choose to cut out sugar for your well-being, you will likely notice withdrawal symptoms because it is highly addictive. Your body builds up a tolerance and starts to expect a certain level of sugar intake each day. You probably even crave high levels of sugar during specific times of the day.

Common signs of dietary sugar withdrawal include:

  • Headaches or migraines
  • Feelings of a panic attack
  • Craving sugar (even salivating!)
  • Increased feelings of anxiety
  • Irritability or confusion
  • Fatigue and low mood (depressive symptoms)

Dr. Uma Naidoo at Harvard Medical School recommends not stopping sugar intake cold turkey if you consume high levels. This is especially true if you have anxiety or depression.

Unhealthy Sugar Craving Patterns

There are four ways you may use sugar in an unhealthy way. You may have an unhealthy sugar craving pattern if you turn to sweet food or drink when:

  • You need a boost of energy
  • You want to soothe yourself
  • You want to reward yourself

Most of us have this ingrained at a very young age. Parents tend to reward children with sweets or make getting sweets a really special experience. We often center a lot of our social events around eating and the dessert is considered the highlight of the event (Birthday cake, holiday sweet tables, Easter baskets of candy, Trick or Treating for sweets, etc.).

How to Stop Sugar Cravings

It can be very hard to reduce your sugar intake, especially if you aren’t going cold turkey with a hard and fast rule! But lowering your amount (and not cutting completely at first) is often the best way to cut sugar without severe withdrawal symptoms. It’s often more sustainable to reduce sugar and create new dietary patterns, rather than draw a hard line in the sand.

In order to stop your sugar cravings, you need to follow these three steps:

1. Identify Your Unhealthy Craving Pattern

Watch to find out when you are craving sugar. More than likely, you are in a cycle. You probably follow one of the unhealthy sugar craving patterns and knowing your triggers are going to help you change the habit of adding sugar to your diet. Ask yourself:

  • Do you tend to choose sweet things as motivation or to boost your energy?
  • Do you search out sweets when you are feeling sad or low?
  • Do you want a dessert after every meal (or even just after a specific meal, like dinner?)

2. Interrupt the Pattern

Now that you know what is triggering your cravings, you can interrupt them when they occur. There are three things you should do to immediately interrupt the pattern and stop the sugar craving:

Three Thumps: Activate your energy system by tapping in three places (as demonstrated in my video). First, thump on the meridian point (in the center of the collar bone). Next, thump on the sternum. Finish by thumping under the arms in the center of your ribs along your sides. This will help give your system the energy reboot it needs!

Increase Your Water Intake: Water will help satisfy your system and reset your palette. It will reduce the feelings of needing something sweet. Plus, water is so important for every system within your body and it’s important to drink several glasses a day for your health.

Reset with a New Flavor: You can use my I am Fit essential oil to help change your taste palette. Rather than crave sweets, this will help rejuvenate your senses and encourage healthy eating. This has a sweet and warm citrusy scent that will help suppress appetite and reduce cravings.

3. Change the Pattern

Every time you interrupt the pattern, remind yourself that you did something good for your body instead of giving in to your sugar cravings. Do not sink into a negative thought pattern during this process (symptoms of depression that may come as you get off sugar). Instead, focus on positive mantras and affirmations.

  • Set intentions when your choices aren’t in line with your goals.
  • Give yourself grace and believe you are capable of change.
  • Praise your choices when they are healthy and mindful.

Tips for Lowering Sugar Consumption

You might not always realize when you are choosing foods that are high in sugar. If you are trying to lower sugar consumption, you will want to watch for the most common sources of added sugar in your diet.

Avoid Processed Foods

Most processed foods are filled with salt and sugar. You might think of ice cream, candy bars, and soda as full of sugar (and they are!), but a lot of daily foods often included added sugar too. This includes:

  • Canned goods
  • Frozen foods
  • Fast foods
  • Packaged foods
  • Sweetened beverages (like juice)

Most of the time, the process of preserving these foods removes a lot of nutrients and adds unhealthy ingredients (like sodium and sugar). Eating as many raw and whole foods as possible will help you choose foods that are higher in nutrients and better for fueling your body.

Watch for Added Sugar in Labels

Bread, cereal, milk, and peanut butter are examples of foods that often have sugar snuck into the mix. When you start reading the labels, you will be shocked at how many foods are filled with sneaky sugar. On the labels, this may be listed as:

  • Sugar (cane sugar, raw sugar, real sugar)
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Sucrose
  • Castor sugar
  • Fruit juice
  • Honey

Avoid Adding Sugar to Hot Beverages

Coffee and tea are places we often add sugar without thinking. On their own, these drinks offer health benefits, but not if they are filled with sweeteners! Opt for black or just cream.

If you don’t enjoy your drink without added sugars, it might be best to cut them out. But, if you really don’t want to give up an occasional coffee and need the sweetener, it can be best to choose raw honey. You will still be adding sugar, so remember to keep it in moderation with the rest of your choices for the day.

Avoid Sweet Sauces or Dressings

Ever think you are making a great healthy choice with a grilled piece of chicken or a large salad for your meal? This is completely nullified if you then drench it in barbecue sauce or French dressing. Sweet sauces are common places where sugar may creep into otherwise healthy diets. Choose a sugar-free option, like Ranch or Blue Cheese, if you really need a sauce. Watch out for ketchup, too, and choose mayo or mustard instead.

Sauces, for the most part, aren’t going to be very nutritional. But some are more filled with sugar than others, and you are going to want to remove those from your diet.

Pick Healthier Desserts

Rather than pick candy, cakes, cookies, or ice cream, you can treat yourself to a healthier dessert. Try one of my favorite dessert options:

  • Fresh fruit (especially berries that are rich in flavor and low in sugar)
  • Dates (sweet and warm, high in fiber for a filling treat)
  • Dark chocolate (low in sugar and rich in antioxidants and minerals)
  • Low sugar (or plain and sugar-free) yogurt with fruit
  • Sautéed fruit sprinkled with cinnamon

Create a Fun Challenge

In keeping with the positive mentality and mantra, make the changes fun when possible. Challenge yourself (and maybe even your friends and family) to kick all added sugar to the curb within two weeks (consider adding physical activity, too!).

You might find it highly challenging at first, but after about five days of being sugar-free, you will start to notice your tastes change and your energy increases! Yes, you will absolutely feel better without so much sugar in your diet, and your risk factors will decrease.

Ready for even more positive changes in your life?

Join me at the Carol Tuttle Healing Center for a community of like-minded people who want to work towards wellness and self-improvement. I offer healing tips for clinical depression and other struggles in life.

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